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The thawing of Rochester with Climate Change

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No stranger to Climate Change, 20,000 years ago what is now the Rochester area was buried under a mile-high glacier. When all that began to thaw, carving out what are now the Great Lakes and our Finger Lakes, it did so in a gradual enough span of time for a thriving environment to evolve. The present warming, this one not caused by variations in Earth's orbit, is due to our over-use of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to fuel our way of living, and it is occurring much faster than the last (there were several) glacier retreat. In fact, the present warming is happening at a pace too fast (…10 times faster than any change recorded in past 65 million years) for many of our indigenous plants and wildlife to adapt. This will lead not only to a loss of local biodiversity, but also to more extreme flooding.

I mention flooding this week as the recent snow dump we’ve received in the Northeast is quickly warming, creating some gushers:

“The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch for the region due to a dramatic warm-up and heavy rain possible this weekend.” (Flood watch issued for region, Daily Messenger, 12/19/2013)

Flooding, snow and ice thawing so quickly they overwhelm our natural drainage streams, our cellar sub pumps, our sewer systems, and our wastewater treatment facilities are infrastructural weaknesses that are going to have to be strengthened, and it is going to take money. Over the centuries we have created some ingenious ways to keep back the water. But without government involvement (that’s our taxes at work), it’s unlikely we can rebound from major flooding (or afford the insurance) coming with Climate Change. This was brought home to the folks in the Midwest with brilliant clarity in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which proved that Big Government was going to have to step in, starting with the Flood Control Act of 1928.

By the end of this weekend more snow will come again, probably making many who have not been educating themselves on Climate Change think that we here in the Rochester region have dodged a bullet. Hardly. It’s the Climate stupid. As NASA points out, there’s a good reason why we here in the US are so cool, while the rest of the planet’s regions are cooking. Could we possibly have screwed up the polar jet stream too?

Opposites attract: U.S. experiences cold and heat extremes While the continental U.S. shivered through an abnormally cold spell in December 2013, Alaska experienced record-breaking heat. Both extremes were caused by an unusual kink in the northern hemisphere’s polar jet stream, which caused frigid Arctic air to move south and warm air to head north. The jet stream is a fast-moving belt of westerly winds created by the convergence of cold air masses from the Arctic and warm air from lower latitudes. It’s common for it to have meanders called Rossby waves, but what was unusual in December 2013 was how amplified and contorted those waves became after a ridge of high pressure parked itself over Alaska. As warm air pushed north, numerous temperature records fell in Alaska. On December 7, 2013, temperatures reached 39°F (4°C) at Deadhorse, an airport in far northern Alaska that serves Prudhoe Bay. This was the warmest December temperature measured there since the airport was established in 1968, according to Weather Underground historian Christopher Burt. Meanwhile, high temperature records for December also fell or were tied at Barter Island, Alaska, and Wainwright, Alaska. In contrast, many towns in the Pacific Northwest saw record cold temperatures. (December 16, 2013) NASA Global Climate Change

This heat, not coming slow or gradually or uniformly, is going to be abundantly clear to our generation when the Arctic melts. No less authority that our military thinks it will come soon: “US Navy predicts summer ice free Arctic by 2016”.

Granted, we cannot stop the Arctic from melting, even if the whole planet went on a wartime footing, because a tipping point was passed a while ago in our atmospheric warming. Because we did not know what we were doing a century ago with GHG’s, we caused the sun’s energy to get trapped as heat in our atmosphere and waters, making it too hot to float big icebergs. But we can at least stop the exploitation of the Arctic, this pristine region of our planet, by stopping ourselves from further fossil-fuel burning, from drilling for more fossil fuels, and from opening the ice-free waters to shipping and fishing. It won’t be easy, that’ for sure. The Arctic 30 got gobbled up by that annoying Russian penchant to throw folks who tell them things they don’t like (like drilling in the Arctic is an insane idea) into their cold, dark prisons. They spit these heroes out this week only because Russia didn’t want to look like a bunch of thugs before hosting the Olympics.

I know, stemming the invisible hand from grabbing the last vestige of environmental purity from the new Arctic frontier fills free market fundamentalists with horror. Just like the pro-Frackers in New York, who think the New York State economy will collapse without more fossil fuels, too many moneyheads believe the treasures of the Arctic cannot be wasted on saving our planetary environment. And yet the Arctic, one of the major air conditioners of our planet, must be left fallow, if nothing else as a reminder of our folly.

Sadly, it may even be the case that many in our region would just love to see all the ice and snow just go away—for good. Those ice caps on our planet, for all their eerie pristine beauty, may not be to everyone’s taste. The polar ice caps are extremely cold and useless for growing stuff. As for our snow-laden Rochester winters, many don’t like the icy driving conditions; they don’t like skiing, snowmobiling and can live without maple syrup. But Climate Change isn’t just about getting rid of the frosty hassles when you’re not in the mood for them; it’s about the speed at which this is all happening. Even if you don’t frequent the Arctic, you’re going to feel the effects when it thaws.

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