Friday, August 20, 2010

How climate change is burning Russia and flooding Pakistan

This will not be a happy post, but it is nonetheless important, and thanks for taking the time to read it. As I stated here, I am no longer debating whether or not climate change is happening or if humanity has an effect on the climate. Like with evolution and the theory of biological reproduction, an overwhelming consensus of scientists with expertise on the subject have reached the conclusion that yes, the planet is warming, and yes, we are adversely affecting the atmosphere. And we need to move the discussion forward.

I welcome all comments, and understand that in science, new evidence can always overturn old evidence. But just like with climatologists around the Earth, the theory of anthropogenic global warming is established, and findings to that conclusion have been around since 1896. Instead of, "My oil company-funded think tanks disagree with your scientists," the discussion now needs to be, "how can we help?"

Awareness is the first step, and I like to think that's where this post comes in. Hopefully with awareness, comes action. And with action comes solutions.

August's Deadly Heat

"These are the most bitter days of my life."
-Iltaz Begum, 15 year-old Pakistani orphan

In August of 2003, 52,000 people died after a brutal heat wave that spread across Europe. In France alone, 15,000 people died, most of them elderly. Because of a usually temperate climate there, Summers are mild, and even in August, the nights are cool, so air conditioning wasn't seen as a necessity there. But combine 104-degree fahrenheit temperatures with metal and tin roofs on Parisian homes with no air condtioning, and the inside of the home becomes an oven. Bodies cooked and rotted in the August sun, some of them not collected until almost a month after the heatwave, as many government employees were on their August vacation.

In August of 2010, a brutal heat wave has left large swaths of Russia charred from unprecedented wildfires. It's been three weeks, and fires are still raging across the country. Approximately 10% of Russia's land mass was on fire at one point, and 500 conflagrations still blaze through the country's forests. So far, the wildfires have killed 50 people and torched 2,000 homes. A third of the country's wheat crop is gone, which has raised grain prices sky-high across the globe as the Russian government has temporarily banned exports.

But what is being called the worst environmental disaster to date also happened in August of 2010. While Russia burns to the north, 6 million of their neighbors in Pakistan are without a stable water supply after massive flooding destroyed homes and crippled an already unstable infrastructure. Children are without parents, left to fend for themselves in government refugee camps, while rushing waters and a continuous downpour leave 1/5th of the country underwater. 20 million Pakistanis have been affected by the flooding. It's estimated that $460 million is needed for flood relief, but only $93 million has been gathered. Pakistan is in desperate need. These floods are worse than the Haiti earthquake, worse than the 2004 tsunamis, and worse than the 2005 earthquake in the same country.

So why is all of this happening?

Climate Change Comes Home to Roost

"Life was always so difficult, but now we're doomed."
-Abdul Ghani, 14 year-old Pakistani orphan, oldest of seven siblings

Extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm. Heat waves are capable of killing tens of thousands of people used to temperate climates. And in the wintertime, 49 US states all had seen snowfall at one point. Even in Texas. Even in Florida. Even in Mississippi. Some climate change deniers said this was proof that global warming wasn't real, which as Bill Maher pointed out, is kind of like saying the sun doesn't exist at night because it's dark outside.

The millions in Pakistan are the latest of a group we'll be hearing a lot more of- environmental refugees. U.N. figures estimate there to be close to 25 million worldwide displaced because of ecological disasters. And with events like the 2004 tsunamis, flooding in Mozambique, the recent quake in Haiti, and the millions now homeless and wandering Pakistan, that number is on track and is expected to swell past 150 million in the next 40 years. And in 10 years, an ice sheet in Greenland could break off into the Arctic ocean if the temperature rises between 2C and 7C, which could happen under current rates of consumption, fossil fuel use and overpopulation. This would cause sea levels to rise by 23 feet, and that 150 million number could very well double or even triple in size should coastal cities see similar floods.

So, again, how is all of this causing the floods and the fires?

As sea levels rise with things like 100-mile ice sheets breaking off, that causes changes in the jetstream, thus changing the way winds blow. Take a look at the picture below.

On the left, you see wind patterns in the Russia/Pakistan area under normal jetstream conditions. From 1968 to 1996, these conditions remained largely the same. There's a polar jetstream on the Northern side, and a tropical jetstream on the Southern side. But in the 2010 graph, we see a very oddly strong polar wind blowing North of Russia around Moscow, going directly South into Pakistan. So how do these jetstreams affect weather patterns?

The Northern polar jetstream usually brings extratropical lows and cyclones that make up the bulk of the precipitation in that geographical region of the world, and serves as the boundary between cold Northern air and hot Southern air. When it goes suddenly Northward like this past July, that leaves those exposed areas unusally hot and dry and prevented necessary rain, making the area ripe for conditions like the wildfires currently raging in the forests near Moscow.

So where did those rain patterns go? Follow the graphic, and you see that after blowing far Northward, they dove suddenly Southward toward Pakistan, causing heavy rainfall and widespread flooding, in the midst of their already rainy monsoon season.


"There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew."
-Marshall McLuhan

Does anybody see a pattern here? I'll lay it out very simply.

-Excessive amounts of CO2, emitted largely by industrialized countries who burn fossil fuels, are becoming mired in our atmosphere, channeling the sun's heat on the North pole.
-Warming of the arctic causes ice to melt, which causes oceans to become warmer and saltier, which leads to more ice melting.
-Ice melting leads to changes in sea level.
-Changes in sea level lead to changes in the jetstream.
-Changes in the jetstream lead to drastic ecological crises like the fires in Russia and the floods in Pakistan.

If, for some reason, you still doubt the theory of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, even after reading this post and perusing the links I cited to back up my claims, can we at least agree that our environment is worth preserving for future generations?

Can we agree to bike more, and drive less?
To turn off and unplug unused appliances?
To swear off plastic bottles?
To shut off the A/C when we leave home?
To grow our own food, or buy locally-grown food? Or to eat out less?
To buy cars that get good gas mileage, so we pump less gas?
To call our senators and congressmen and tell them that you, their constituent, support legislation to mitigate the effects of climate change?

True change starts with ourselves and our communities. What are you doing to help?

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