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weather chaos

I've been thinking about writing this for a few days now, maybe more than a week, and for some reason I never get around to it. I start writing down a primer for chaotic dynamical systems and then I think that it will be too much and not very interesting for most people ... but anyway, here are some thoughts.

The recent harsh cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere has lead to some global-warming naysayers to use this as "proof" that global warming is not happening.


The problem is that global warming will not simply make the Earth "warmer." By raising the temperature, several things happen. For example, glaciers start to melt (which is happening now at an alarming rate) and the cold water not only raises water levels but affects warm currents that are vital to preserving elements of global climate (a big factor is reducing the salinity --and thus the density--of the water, others are that the increased temperatures affect wind patterns which a;sp play a role in determining ocean currents). This could for example slow down or shutdown key oceanic streams such as the Gulf Stream. The imbalance created by the higher temperatures and changes in ocean currents would create extreme weather patterns all over the globe: superstorms on some parts, droughts on others, floods, and so on.

Global warming is, then, a misnomer. In our MTV-3-seconds-a-news-clip culture we probably need a new phrase to describe what global warming does. "Weather chaos" is pretty accurate, but it doesn't have the 'zing' I think.

Additionally, these changes reinforce each other, bigger storms pour even more rain on the oceans, which affects the water even further, just as the winds start behaving in more violent and uncommon patterns. The increased cloud cover brought on by increased temperatures also feeds the greenhouse effect, trapping heat and increasing the temperatures even more, making the climate even more unstable. In the end, we might not see it coming. Dynamical systems have a way of shifting directions dramatically and without warning.

None of this is 100% certain of course. But what ever is? The real question is not "are we sure this could happen?" but "What can we do to stop it from happening if possible?" Assuming it happens, once it starts there will be no turning back, no quick fixes. The weather will be out of control, and we can kiss our precious little all-singing all-dancing civilization goodbye.

All of this is a long prelude to say that I simply don't understand what is the problem in getting some action behind trying to curtail emissions, etc. I can't understand at all why some people argue that trying to cut back on CO2 emissions would "hit the bottom line". What happens when there's no bottom line to hit anymore? Why, why, why is it that western societies, that are so conscious of "health care" seem to worry little when a disaster of massive proportions maybe not too far ahead? Only because it's 20, 30, 100 years into the future? We can all hope that these scenarios are indeed wrong. But the evidence is piling up to the contrary. And if they happen to be right... what then? Will we just limit ourselves to pouting and moaning about it? This is potentially catastrophic as few things are, and not taking it more seriously seems to me a massive folly.

What comes to mind is a paragraph from Richard Preston's The Hot Zone:

In a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species.
In Preston's book it is related to the emergence of new viral threats, but it might as well apply in this case.

Now, as it happens, the other day when I saw The Return of the King I also saw the trailer for The Day After Tomorrow which is basically, from what I can see, about this scenario. One good thing about the movie is that it might increase awareness; the bad thing is that people might say "oh, it's just a movie" and since it's from the director of Independence Day reach the conclusion that this is as likely destroying an invading alien race by infecting the Alien's mother ship using an Apple Powerbook with software written in about a day. What is a;sp weird is that the first thing you hear (on the trailer at least) is that "Meteorologists are at a loss to explain what is causing this weather". This is complete crap of course. We will know. We will know that the delicate balance of the Earth's atmosphere has been broken, and that a new balance has to be found, and it will most likely come in the form of another Ice Age.

Maybe for the first time in history we have primitive knowledge that enables us to see this problem coming and take action (and yes, that same knowledge creates technology that is likely, in fact, to be exacerbating something that would have happened naturally anyway, or even creating it artifically). But instead of taking action we are sitting comfortably arguing about it. Even in a strict analysis "by the numbers" it seems to me that the potential cost (investment in cleaner technologies, paying for more serious research on the topic, intergovernmental cooperation on the matter) would be insignificant compared to the consequences.

Sorry if this seems a bit depressing. I'm just venting a little. I do hope that we'll turn around. Humans. You never know what we're going to do next!

Categories: science
Posted by diego on January 26 2004 at 11:42 PM

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