Climate Crisis is here
July 20th 2022
Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Of course, it’s not at all unusual for it to be seven degrees warmer in London than it is here in the northern California mountains. On a January day, when it is 30 degrees with blowing and drifting snow (an increasingly rare event, to be sure), I would be totally unsurprised to learn it was 37 and raining over there. After all, cold drizzle epitomizes London. Even in summer, if you factor in the time difference it wouldn’t be unusual to get up and find it’s 55 here at sunrise, and in London it’s mid afternoon and 62.
But yesterday, it was 97 here. Thirty years ago it probably would set a local record for the date. Even now, it’s warmer than usual.
But afternoon on the same date, London saw a high of 104.2 degrees. It shattered the all-time record for London by three full degrees (reliable records go back 350 years there!). We still don’t know the full extent of the damage; we can only hope for a low death toll. We saw blazes along the M-25 that looked more like the fires one might see alongside US101. Airports closed because runways melted. Because of thermal expansion, railroads added some 5 miles of track that didn’t exist that morning.
I remarked, half-jokingly, that the firefighters were probably relieved to find their hoses actually work. Usually, I said, when a vegetation fire breaks out, they just quietly wait around for the next rain to put it out. (Actually they acquitted themselves quite well, given that most had never seen conditions quite like those that hit England yesterday). Bad news for the fires today: it’s 40 degrees cooler and raining. Back to normal…for now. Only not quite the same normal.
It came on a day when professional coal grifter and greedhead Joe Manchin killed the climate change initiative once and for all after 18 months of bad-faith bargaining. As fires ignite this summer, he stands to become America’s Guy Fawkes. Reviled. For centuries.
Much as I hate to imagine the misery Europe and the UK went through yesterday I’m hoping it has the same galvanic effect that Kim Stanley Robinson’s horrific fictional heat wave in Delhi had on world resolve to address climate change in “Ministry of the Future.” If it doesn’t, other near-future events will. But we’re past the point where we can avoid massive damage and loss of life.
I live in one of the wettest parts of California. Our average precipitation during the 20th century exceeded that of London’s; or Seattle’s! Just a hair short of 50” in liquid amounts a year, mostly in the form of snow.
We just got notice Sunday that we are going on severe water rationing effective immediately. Outdoor watering is limited to one day a week, before 10am and after 7pm. And it might get much worse without notice. We could end up having to import drinking water, like many other small towns in the central valley.
We live on the low slopes of a 14,000 foot mountain, and over the past two decades, the glaciers have been melting and weakening. Last June, the heat dome that destroyed Lytton, BC and sent temperatures into the hundred-and-oh-my-gods in the PNW brushed us. We didn’t have record-breaking heat in town, but on the higher slopes of Shasta, temperatures soared. The Konwakiton Glacier collapsed, sending a huge debris flow down the aptly-named Mud Creek. Half a mile wide and up to thirty feet deep, it buried the main N to S route east of the mountain, taking out a new bridge and adding thirty miles to the commute of a small settlement in the area north of the flow. It’s now a slow motion avalanche, threatening the main water pipeline, the pumping house, and could even move into parts of the town itself. (I’m on a hill on the other side of town, and won’t get buried). So climate change just got real for us.
But like the debris flow, the climate crisis is a slow moving avalanche. While unlikely spots like London and Lytton bake in temperatures normally seen in the middle east or the Outback, California has experienced an ongoing and self-reinforcing cycle of drought, heat, and creeping disaster.
Consider: temperatures rise. In the winter, even when there isn’t a drought, less of the rain falls as snow because the snowline is higher. Even a modest increase can have a huge loss in snowpack. Consider the area of a cone, one half the way up and three quarters the way up (πr(r+√(h2+r2)) where r is the radius of the circular base, and h is the height of cone, for those who don’t have to pull off a shoe to count to 11). Mountains are very roughly conical, so you get the idea. And then consider that the snow in the areas that still get snow will have less snow, and what there is will melt faster.
But there’s more. Increased heat means a faster rate of evaporation, resulting in drier ground. At my altitude, snow, which used to be around through April, is gone by early March if it was there at all. So soil covered by snow and wetted as the snow melts is now drying out during that critical period. Further downslope, there is no run-off. Things desiccate.
Dry soil warms faster than moist soil, increasing air temperature at ground level. This results in a decrease in water vapor, increasing the heat. (Water takes 10,000 times the energy to heat the same amount as dry air does).
Because of this, what used to be normal amounts of precipitation only add to the water deficit since it melts and evaporates away faster. And for the past two years, we’ve barely had two-thirds of normal, so what might be an inconvenient drought is now a crippling drought.
This is the vicious cycle that California—and much of the west—is in. Alaska is burning, the Canadian and Russia arctics are losing their permafrost, releasing vast amounts of methane (the stuff the Manchin lobby are promoting as “clean, safe propane” this week) making things worse.
I’m afraid there’s worse news. For the past two years, the world has seen a La Niña, a swing in the vast El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle that is driven by trade winds and upwelling of colder waters. La Niña tends to depress global temperatures by a degree or two. All these heat records we see over the past two years are happening at a time when generally, the world should be a bit cooler than normal. Early indications suggest that we may have an unprecedented third straight winter of La Niña conditions, which is bad news for California since it often means drier than normal winter.
However, the opposite of La Niña is El Niño, which elevates global temperatures by up to two degrees. Going by past history, I estimate there is a 75% chance of a routine El Niño in the next three years, and a 33% chance of a major El Niño in the same period. Ready for a significant rise in temperatures over and above what we have now? It’s dead certain to happen. Along with knock-on effects like drought, fire, floods, crop failures and mass migrations. And as always happens in such cases, war.
We can’t avoid it any more. But if we stop letting idiots like Manchin profit off our slow avalanche, we might salvage enough that our grandchildren might survive.
It’s no longer a significant crisis. It’s existential. Ask any Londoner. Ask a former resident of Lytton.
Ask anyone from my own town.