Thursday, February 7, 2008

The link between strange and extreme weather and climate change. Does it matter?

The powerful killer tornados that blasted across the Southeast on Tuesday were - according to Dr. Jeff Masters, the most deadly mid-winter tornados in recorded history with the exception of a storm in January, 1949. The drought that continues to plague northern Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas is equally unusual in that region's history.

Scientists and responsible science writers (such as Chris Mooney) are admitting that in both cases - and in general - they must be very cautious about attributing these oddball extremes to climate change.

Fair enough. That's how science should and must be. But really, does it matter? If we are witnessing hundreds of broken records for temperature, rainfall and drought in the course of a year, there's a gut level instinct that tells you something is changing in the world. No one has yet defined how we'll mark the official, scientifically sanctioned and approved beginning of Climate Change. No one has described how we will someday look back on history and set a pushpin on a timeline and declare, "This is when the climate began to change."

We certainly can't say that just because over 50 people were killed in February tornados this year, we can expect to see such patterns repeated from now on. The most certain thing we can say about climate change is that its behavior will be uncertain. Our weather patterns may change, but they may not settle into any patterns at all.

I think it's fair to say that having the Arctic ice cover disappear, having countless glaciers retreat, having severe flooding in England, catastrophic drought in Australia and shrinking snowpack in the Rockies all represent changes in...something. We can studiously avoid blaming these facts on global warming, but not if it means denying that they are happening.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Thank you, Cliff, this is very well put!