Climate change in our own backyard

It’s tempting, in the midst of a cold spell, to joke about climate change. When temperatures stall in the record-breaking single digits and our only choice seems to be staying in or leaving the house looking like a cross between a teletubby and Hannibal Lecter, we might let slip that a little global warming would be welcome. But if these same low temperatures become a catalyst for climate denial, it’s time to sober up.

When U.S. Sen. James Inhofe found himself in the midst of an unseasonable cold spell in Washington, D.C. back in February 2015, he brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in an attempt to disprove global warming once and for all.

His message – though mistaken – was clear: Global warming and winter weather are mutually exclusive. How can we believe in climate change when here we are, wearing layered sweaters and fur-lined boots?

It turns out that this thinking confuses weather and climate.

So what’s the difference? Weather has to do with day-to-day fluctuations, climate with measurements made over the long term and across large regions. While weather might be a Kodak moment, climate is the several season docu-drama.

While weather is your grade on a single test, climate is your end-of-the-year assessment. The problem we often have with climate (as opposed to weather) is that it’s abstract and hard to see. Weather is available to us constantly, conveying its messages through our senses (rain on the umbrella, sun on the skin), while climate’s measurements – usually thirty-year averages of variables such as temperature and rain-fall — are complex, ascertained through a variety of methodologies, and conveyed often through charts and graphs.

We’ve sometimes found it easier to put more faith in our senses than in scientific reports that seem to fly in the face of common sense.

But today we no longer live in an insular world. Our technology connects us to the wildfires and mudslides in California, the flooding in Florida, and beyond our own country to Sydney, Australia where this past week the temperature was a sweltering 117 degrees, the hottest it has been in over 70 years. One look at the climate map tells us that the entire planet, including the shivering northeast United States, is experiencing, on the whole, temperatures that are above-average, and rising.

Over 60 locations in the United States have recorded all-time temperature highs, and the five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2006. Last year, 2017, has now been declared the second warmest on record ? and that without the benefit of an El Nino to help warm it up. And closer to home, Williamsport’s average temperature during 2017 was nearly 3 degrees F above normal.

Today we don’t simply have to take the word of the scientists. The effects of climate change are becoming all-too-visible in our collective back yard.

A recent survey from Yale University found that 56 percent of Clinton County residents believe that, though global warming may already be harming people elsewhere in the U.S., it will not affect us personally.

But in fact, it’s already here.

Climate change is having a direct effect on the winter we’re experiencing this year in the Northeast. According to world-renowned climatologist Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, much of what we’re seeing this winter, including the record 5-foot snowfall in Erie and the massive winter storms that have crippled the east coast, results from the warming of our lakes and oceans. The warmer the water surface, the more energy that’s available to intensify the storms. And the warmer the water surface, the more atmospheric moisture there is to form precipitation. Mann comments that “the unusual weather we’re seeing this winter is in no way evidence against climate change. It is an example of precisely the sort of extreme winter weather we expect because of climate change.”

Mann agrees with Dr. Jennifer Francis, research professor at Rutgers who studies Arctic-global climate linkages, that warming in the Arctic also contributes to this winter’s brutal temperatures.

The warming, which is occurring at a rapid pace, is having an impact on the jet stream, the river of wind flowing about seven miles above the earth that forms a barrier between hot and cold air and that has a significant influence on weather patterns. Though the jet stream normally travels in a fairly straight west-to-east direction, the warming in the Arctic is causing it to wobble off course, and the resulting dips (or downward meanders) allow Arctic air to plunge southward – in our direction.

It turns out, according to Mann, that the climate models we thought might have exaggerated the effects of global warming actually underestimated them. Over the past 30 years, half of Arctic sea ice has disappeared, and further loss, as well as further warming of both land and ocean are expected.

The patterns we are beginning to see will continue, winter and summer.

Here in Pennsylvania, annual average temperatures are projected to increase by 2.5 degrees F, and much of the state can expect substantially more days over 90 degrees.

It’s probable that dairy production will be depressed, that grape, corn and apple harvests will be negatively impacted, that suitable habitat for our hardwoods (especially black cherry, sugar maple, and beech) will be reduced, and that our fish populations (which are sensitive to higher water temperatures) will be affected.

Both our state bird, the ruffled grouse, and our state fish, the brook trout, are expected to see declining populations.

We can also expect that extreme weather will have a significant impact on our state’s agricultural output, with blight, heat-related crop failure, pests, disease outbreaks, and flood-induced runoff all playing a part.

Some say that soon we will be able to see the effects of climate change by looking out our own windows. But the truth is: we already are.

Karen Elias retired from teaching college English and is now a Lock Haven based freelance writer, activist and volunteer.