Politics Blog

Is hot, dry summer evidence of global warming?

Smoke from large fires in British Columbia and smaller fires in Whatcom County color the sky on Sunday evening, July 5, over Lake Padden in Bellingham. The unusually warm spring and summer created high-risk wildfire conditions. The weather trend also made for good outdoor swimming; people at Lake Padden over the Fourth of July weekend reported “bathwater” conditions.
Smoke from large fires in British Columbia and smaller fires in Whatcom County color the sky on Sunday evening, July 5, over Lake Padden in Bellingham. The unusually warm spring and summer created high-risk wildfire conditions. The weather trend also made for good outdoor swimming; people at Lake Padden over the Fourth of July weekend reported “bathwater” conditions. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Three wildfires burning in Whatcom County. (Or is it four? I’ve lost count.) Temperatures, river levels, and dry grasses and forests that all resemble August more than June. A no-pack snowpack that made ski season a bust and took the “ski” out of the Memorial Day weekend Ski to Sea race.

All while Dutch Royal Shell Co.-owned vessels were preparing to leave Bellingham Bay and join a team preparing to do some exploratory oil drilling off the coast of north Alaska. Protesters pointed to the Ski to Sea fiasco as evidence that our climate was already warming significantly, and now was certainly not the time to pursue more fossil fuel extraction. (Burning fossil fuels releases an unnatural amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which traps infrared heat leaving the earth’s surface, resulting in gradually warmer temperatures over a time scale of decades.)

Looking back at June, it extended Bellingham International Airport’s warm streak to 16 consecutive months with temperatures above normal.

The airport’s average overall temperature in June was 5.5 degrees warmer than normal, which is defined as temperatures from 1981 to 2010. The average high temperature is supposed to be 67 degrees in June; last month, the average high was 74 degrees.

Rainfall was below normal for the fourth consecutive month in Bellingham. June’s 0.26 inches of rain was just a hair more than the driest June ever recorded in Bellingham: 0.25 inches in 1977.

Click through media sites today, and they are rife with doom-and-gloom stories about the state of our region’s natural environment.

The latest story (as of this writing) about British Columbia wildfires on vancouversun.com underscores the scope of the problem there. An excerpt:

So far this year, 866 wildfires burning a total of 222,000 hectares have been identified in the province. On Sunday alone, 27 new wildfires were discovered. In comparison, the provincial Wildfire Management Branch responded to just 358 fires last year.

...

“The weather forecast is not helpful for us as we look forward — continued hot and dry conditions — so we are asking and really want to reaffirm today for the public to be vigilant in their activities in the outdoors,” Forests Minister Steve Thomson said.

...

Thomson said that this was the earliest start to a wildfire season that he can remember.

B.C. Wildfire Service has an updating map on its website of active fires.

From fire to water. The Fraser River is unusually warm and low, much like our own Nooksack River. According to a report in the Globe and Mail,

If a large number of fish (possibly hundreds of thousands) are expected to die because of warm water conditions, the catch will need to be restricted. And it is possible no fishing at all will be allowed.

As the Globe and Mail report explains,

Usually, the river is still swollen with snow melt and is typically about three degrees cooler. But with the snowpack long gone, and a record hot, dry June melting into an unusually warm July, Fraser River salmon are facing tough conditions.

The report chalks this year’s unusual Fraser River conditions to climate change, attributing this statement to Mike Lapointe, chief biologist for the Pacific Salmon Commission:

(Lapointe) said the Fraser has experienced 10 of the warmest years on record over the past 15 years and the trend is driven by climate change.

Cliff Mass, a University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, and a popular blogger and radio personality on the science of weather, is with the majority of scientists when he says be wary of pegging short-term weather trends, or local weather trends, to the creeping, worldwide phenomenon of global warming.

The 15 years of data referred to in the Fraser River story is more meaningful in terms of climate change than Bellingham’s current 16-month warm streak, but whether it’s southern B.C. or western Washington, there is something highly unusual going on in our part of the world — and to Mass, it doesn’t appear to be related to fossil-fuel burning.

(Regular readers of this blog know I took classes taught by Mass in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student in atmospheric sciences at the UW.)

Mass’ blog post from Thursday, July 2, goes further than anything else I’ve seen to give a thorough accounting of why it’s so warm and dry here.

He’s not afraid to tear down the accepted wisdom of the Seattle region’s activist community with his analysis:

Any reasonable analysis suggests the warmth is predominantly the result of natural variability. That is, not being caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. I know some folks are not happy with me saying this, and some media/advocacy groups are pushing other things, but I think the facts are clear.

But Mass is no industry shill, either. He is a vocal opponent of Gateway Pacific Terminal, the proposed coal port at Cherry Point. His research on winds at Cherry Point and his discussion about where they would send coal dust from GPT has been cited in progressive publications in Whatcom County such as Whatcom Watch.

When it comes to climate change, Mass argues that we should think gradual change.

The more extreme the weather anomaly, the less likely it is to be caused by human-induced (anthropogenic) global warming. The current situation is mega extreme in terms of our temperatures. ... Global warming due to increased greenhouse gases should warm the earth in a progressive, slow way — not in huge jumps. Here in the Northwest, temperature increases have been particularly slow (about 1F over the past century) because of the huge thermal inertia of the Pacific Ocean.

Go ahead and read Mass’ blog post to get his explanation for what is going on with all this warm, dry weather. The Pacific Ocean “warm blob” off our coast has something to do with it. The persistent high-pressure ridge that is affecting our weather corresponds to a trough that has given East Coast places like Boston such a snow-heavy winter and a cool summer so far.

One final note: Not all scientists subscribe to the notion of a gradual, linear change in climate resulting from fossil-fuel burning. One version of this analysis, by the socialist website Climate & Capitalism, might be taken with a big grain of salt given its political biases, but it appears to be a well-researched discussion of the possibility that the climate could shift suddenly and drastically in ways that can’t be predicted.

Penn State University geologist Richard Alley is quoted in the Climate & Capitalism piece:

“Large, abrupt climate changes have repeatedly affected much or all of the earth, locally reaching as much as 10°C change in 10 years. Available evidence suggests that abrupt climate changes are not only possible but likely in the future, potentially with large impacts on ecosystems and societies….

“Surprising new findings [show] that abrupt climate change can occur when gradual causes push the earth system across a threshold. Just as the slowly increasing pressure of a finger eventually flips a switch and turns on a light, the slow effects of drifting continents or wobbling orbits or changing atmospheric composition may ‘switch’ the climate to a new state.”

If things do change that quickly as a result of pumping up the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, then most of us should still be here to see what happens.

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