It’s been an unusual spring here on the southwest Washington coast. While I’m gratified to see that we’ve gotten more rain in the past few weeks than we did in February when I was finalizing details for my book on climate change, the method of delivery has been anything but normal. Today we’re seeing the sort of windstorm that normally shows up in fall and winter. And last week not only did we get unseasonably cold temperatures even out here in our milder region, but Portland saw several inches of snow, to include at low elevations. The jury’s still out as to whether this most recent spate of weird weather is truly caused by climate change, but it certainly has many of us concerned.
How Does Climate Change Affect the Weather?
Climate change is the preferred term over global warming according to most scientists. The latter often brings derision from deniers when they point out that we still get snow, ice, hail, and freezing temperatures in most of the places that have always gotten them. The effects of anthropogenic climate change are much more complex than what we see in a single day, or even a single season, in a single location during a single year. Rather, you have to track changes over time to see how the trends are shifting.
For example, we’re definitely seeing more extreme weather events, to include in winter. While winters may be shortening, the occurrence of heavier snowfalls and colder temperatures (to include due to polar vortex events) is on the rise. It’s a bit easier for people to understand some of the summertime extremes as being due to climate change, such as higher temperatures and more severe wildfire seasons. Flooding is also more likely due to precipitation patterns being disrupted, leading to precipitation being dropped faster than existing natural and artificial infrastructure can handle it. Because this water cannot always be absorbed by the soil and integrated into aquifers and other natural reservoirs, this just exacerbates drought conditions.
A lot of this weird weather is due to changes in the jet stream. This atmospheric current normally remains more or less balanced between colder Arctic air and warmer tropical temperatures. However, as the Arctic has consistently warmed over the past few decades, the jet stream has weakened, which reduces its ability to stabilize weather patterns in temperate areas in particular. The jet stream normally helps to keep the polar vortex in place in the Arctic, but disruption of both systems by warming in the Arctic has led to this cold air dipping down further south than normal–which means the sort of extremely cold weather events we’ve seen more frequently in recent winters.
Like I said–it’s complicated. The effects may vary from region to region; some places are getting hit harder than others, while some regions are getting less precipitation at the same time others are getting much more. And climate scientists are still working out the exact details of how intertwined extreme weather events and climate change are, compared to historic severe weather anomalies. But there’s a lot of evidence linking climate change to the weird weather we’ve been having, and overall the connection is increasingly clear.
Weird Weather: What’s Next?
I wish I could tell you that this is a temporary situation and that we’ll be back to normal this year, with balmy but not-too-hot summer temperatures, and a more moderate (relatively speaking) winter. Unfortunately, that’s not likely. As last year’s heat dome demonstrated, the limits on what to expect as climate change progresses have been violently upset. Climate scientists and other professionals are doing their level best to try to project how changes will unfold, especially as the impacts of even small changes are turning out to be more damaging than previously predicted.
What is clear is that we’re likely in for a pretty rough ride, and it’s only going to get worse. Even if we managed to stop all anthropogenic carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions today, what’s already in the atmosphere would persist for decades to come, continuing to wreak havoc on the climate. So our best case scenario is still…not that great, at least not in the short term.
That’s no reason to give up, though. It’s not just about those of us alive now. Life is going to continue regardless, and while we can’t just magically fix everything in our lifetimes, I feel we have a responsibility to those who will come after us–human and otherwise–and who will inherit the planet in whatever condition we leave it. Remember that it took many years and several generations to get to this point; a problem on this scale will similarly take years and generations to correct.
But we can still be a part of that effort. And remember that environmental destruction, social injustice, and other ills of humanity are woven together. I saw a post on Facebook recently that said that even if all you can do is tug away at one little thread–one problem, one issue–you are still helping to unravel the whole mess. There are many of us tugging at our own threads, too, and you’re not alone.
Choose the threads you can realistically focus on, whether that’s through shrinking your own carbon footprint, educating yourself and others and combating misinformation, or holding those entities most responsible for climate change accountable. And don’t feel guilty over not being able to do more than what you’re capable of in the moment, or for feeling despair or fear or hopelessness. It’s a big, scary problem that has even the experts worried, so it’s okay for you to feel worried, too. So do your best to take care of yourself in the troubling times to come, and do what you’re able to beyond that even if that changes from day to day.