Facing the Future with Facts
April 22 marks the 47th celebration of Earth Day to demonstrate support for environmental protection in 193 countries, coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network (EarthDay.org). On Earth Day 2016, the U.S., China, and 120 other countries signed the landmark Paris Agreement to forward the creation of a climate protection treaty. Earth Week events include the March for Science on April 22 in Chicago, (ScienceMarchChicago.org) and People’s Climate Mobilization on April 29 in Washington, D.C. and Chicago (PeoplesClimate.org). According to Earth Month Network (Earth-Month.org), the theme of this year’s Earth Month is Our Changing Climate.
The Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years, yet the climate that most humans can relate to has been here only since the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago. Our civilization has experienced consistent annual seasonal change punctuated by a few climatic extreme events that lasted for several decades, such as the “little ice age” that occurred twice between 1300 and 1750.
Often, an extreme weather event might be linked to our changing climate. Because of this perceived “instant correlation”, teams of expert climate scientists from research institutions around the globe publish an annual report on extreme weather events related to climate change (ametsoc.net/eee/2015/2015_bams_eee_low_res.pdf) through the American Meteorological Society. Information from this publication is often used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of about 2,000 international scientists that reviews and summarizes climate science to further update their assessment reports released every six years. More importantly, these findings allows scientists to understand the difference between a climate that changes naturally to one that is altered by human-induced warming.
Although there will always be some element of doubt about why our climate is changing, there is a general consensus that it is changing, and sometimes right in front of our eyes. For example, the USA National Phenology Network annually tracks what they term “first leaf” to indicate climatic spring. This year, spring arrived in portions of the country at least three weeks sooner than ever recorded (usgs.gov/news/just-how-early-spring-arriving-your-neighborhood-find-out-0).
As Midwesterners, we’ve learned to buffer the negative impacts of such extreme weather events, mainly through the advancement of technology. In other parts of the world, developing countries with poor economies and weak infrastructure may be negatively impacted for a longer period of time by extreme weather anomalies, affecting many more people. The greater impact on natural resources can make preparing for and recovering from the damage more difficult.
One thing is for sure; no, make that several things are for sure; global temperatures since 1880, or the beginning of the industrial revolution, have risen nearly 2.0 degrees F, or 1.1 degrees C. While this statement is bold to most climate scientists, the small increase does not seem to worry most people that still do not believe that a planet 2.0 degrees warmer can be detrimental to not only the climate system, but to the other systems within the climate system. A small space such as a parking lot that is 2.0 degrees warmer than average may not generate a great deal of heat, yet our oceans, which cover 70 percent of the Earth’s surface at 2.0 degrees warmer than normal can generate a tremendous amount of heat. In other words, it is not the single point on the graph, but the area under the curve that shows what is really happening.
Other factors affected by our changing climate include the Earth’s increasing population, from 1.5 billion in 1850 to nearly 7 billion in 2010. The corresponding increase in demand for energy and increased use of fossil fuels has pushed one of our most powerful greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, from nearly 285 parts per million (ppm) in 1850 to 405 ppm in 2016. A report in 2013 by the IPCC found it to be “extremely likely” that more than half the global warming that occurred from 1951 to 2010 was a consequence of human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.
So as we enter the month of April and celebrate our Earth, let’s remember that the planet’s climate has changed a lot over the eons, moving both warmer and colder, in its own very natural way that has allowed a sustainable growth of human civilization worldwide to develop and flourish. Yet there have also have been and will continue to be winners and losers in the process. We see that extreme variability can create warmer winters, such as in 2016-2017, that can affect the Midwest and Great Lakes region. However, those that rely on seasonal precipitation in the winter and summer might find that a “new normal” may become less reliable in the future. The science of climate change is driven by both data and policy. We need to further study the unknowns and use the knowledge we have obtained so far to formulate sound decisions that will allow us all to endure an uncertain, unexpected and perhaps unwelcome future.
Rick DiMaio is a professional meteorologist and climate scientist, specializing in aviation meteorology and environmental sustainability. Since 1985, DiMaio has served the Chicago area as a TV and radio broadcast meteorologist, college instructor and flight operations aviation meteorologist. He is currently heard on The Mike Nowak Show on 1590 WCGO and at MikeNowak.net.