Here in Europe (I’m in the Netherlands this weekend), it feels like the “Little Ice Age” — a period of sustained freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls in the 17th century — has returned. Large parts of Europe that don’t usually struggle with snow and ice, including Paris and Rome, are seeing frozen waterways and heavy snows, while areas that usually do struggle, like Ukraine, are being crushed by a paralyzing and fatal winter barrage. Sarajevo, which usually has little snow, had three feet fall this week, and more is on the way.
This may give the global warming skeptics some ammunition, but only if you take the misleading ’thermostat’ rather than the ‘thermodyamic’ view of global climate.
When climate change scientists speak of an increase in average global temperature of one or two degrees, most folks think of themselves sitting quietly in their living rooms or kitchens while an unseen hand is turning up the thermostat by a small amount. Yes, some rooms in the house may get uncomfortably warm, especially in summer, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with wild winters.
But the global weather system is not ‘static’ like the air in our living rooms. It is a highly dynamic system, with interlinked high-volume and high-velocity wind and ocean current systems in constant motion. Moisture is sucked up from oceans and deposited by rain and snow, then draining into rivers that take it back to the oceans. All these cycles have a normal seasonal ebb and flow, and in much of the 20th century they fell into equilibrium in a fairly modest range.
But raising the world’s average temperature is raising the amount of energy bounding around in these dynamic systems. Instead of raising the thermostat inside your house, it’s like stepping on the gas as your car is driving over windy and hilly roads. So the jet stream is more prone to wild swings that move artic air into places it’s not expected, or keeps it there longer, while at the same time letting warm air move into other areas (hence the unusually mild winter enjoyed by the U.S. east coast from November through January.)
There is also more moisture being moved through the system, so we see larger snowfalls, heavier downpours, and more massive floods in some areas, longer and deep droughts and fires (remember Texas?) in others.
“Global warming” is a misleading phrase. It is “climate change” that the greenhouse effect is bringing — and it’s already here. Whether from flooding (Pakistan, Thailand), drought (Texas), or heavy snows and cold (eastern Europe) people are dying from big swings in global weather.
This looks to be the new normal. The biggest question our generation may have to face in fifty years is why, when confronted with these changes, we chose to do nothing in response.