We who live in the sunny South don’t really worry a lot about the weather, unless we farm or garden.
An old Southern comic, Brother Dave Gardner, made a career out of saying, “Hot, ain’t it!” That’s probably the most common weather-related conversation and concern around here, because it does usually get pretty dang hot here in the summer! So far this year, though, we’ve had a fairly moderate summer here in Southeast Georgia. Of course, as I told my wife today, there’s still August to go. It’s been fairly consistently in the mid 70s overnight and hits 90 during the day, but none of that 97-and-hotter stuff that we often get in July. It has been a little humid, off and on, as we’ve had stretches of too much rain punctuated by stretches of not enough, as is often the case. But even the humidity–“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity!” is another common weatherly observation–has not been unbearable yet.
All of which is making many of us Southerners wonder just what is going on. As well we might wonder, given the extremes of weather we’re seeing in lots of other places. I’m a bit of a weather geek, probably because I was a pilot for a few years (during my stint in the U.S. Air Force), and weather is one of the major things you learn about and worry about as a pilot. I took a class in climatology long ago during my preparation for teaching social studies, and that added an edge to my interest in what is one of the most engaging and complex aspects of life on the planet. So, I probably pay more attention to stories about weather, and the actual stuff going on in the atmosphere around me, than most folks.
Which brings me to the real subject here:
hat is going on?
While we’re sitting down here enjoying a fairly mild summer, the folks out in Oregon where I once lived are experiencing heat waves, drought and vicious, terrifying forest fires fueled by the drought and heat. All the northwest is suffering record heat, billions of organisms in the ocean along the northwest coast are dying, and forest fires are raging out of control.
The largest of the Oregon fires is said to be creating its own weather, the heat causing cloud formation and wind. Its smoke is traveling across the continent, polluting the air in New York City. Hundreds of fires are going on from California to near the Arctic Circle, and the firefighting infrastructure is overwhelmed. The consequences of all this seems guaranteed to be dire, thought we don’t yet have an idea of the extent of it.
At the same time, floods are ravaging populations in Asia and other areas of the world, as well as in the U.S. The warming water all around the world (most alarmingly to me right here in the Gulf of Mexico) are giving rise to surges of nasty bacteria that eat humans. (Maybe related, maybe not, but yet another alarming development surfacing as we begin to learn to cope with the COVID pandemic, is a number of strains of resistant fungi in hospital and nursing home environments.)
How can all these diverse and seemingly contradictory phenomena be explained? One of the basic things that I learned about weather is that all the various weather phenomena are powered by heat. It creates the airflow that moves everything around and carries water up into the atmosphere to fall down again as precipitation, and it interacts with the earth’s rotation to create the destructive storms that seem to also be on the increase in recent years. Heat is literally the engine powering everything that happens in the atmosphere.
And, of course, all the data shows that the earth and its atmosphere are heating up. So as there is more heat, even an amount of heat that creates a few degrees of increase in average temperature, all the extremes are pushed further and further. This is the simple, easily understood fact at the basis of the climate science behind global warming as a threat to the stability of our climate. There’s a lot more to the science than that, I’m pretty sure, but that much of it I can understand without being an expert.
That is why even the cold-weather storms and record cold temperatures don’t prove that global warming isn’t happening. They are the result of the extremes of up and down increasing. It’s a simple formula: more heat produces more extreme weather.
Maybe, as the climate-change deniers would say, we don’t have enough data or understanding of the complexities to know what the root causes of this heating up are, and certainly there are a lot of forces interacting there, including the likelihood that we’re still coming out of the last ice age. But we do understand that some things that we are doing are making the situation worse. We need to stop doing those things as expeditiously as possible. Maybe we can’t change the course of this overall process, but, if we can slow it, maybe we’ll have time to prepare to deal with the worst consequences of it.
As a father and grandfather, I reel at the prospects of a degraded natural environment for my progeny, indeed for the human race as a whole. As the natural world suffers, so do we. Our quality of life, the quality of our health and well-being, the quality of our relationships, even the quality of our spiritual lives is directly and materially affected by the conditions of the rest of the world.
We must begin to make choices that reflect these realities. We neglect and deny them at our own peril.