I sit at the Carrboro Really Free Market, on the first caturday in July. I sit in the shade and the banners are blowing lazily in the breeze; still it’s nearly 100 degrees; the humidity jacks it up to 103, and the breeze is welcome but ineffectual. Air quality is ‘Orange’: ozone levels ‘may approach or exceed unhealthy standards.’ A parade is planned but only a handful want to move; I’m definitely not going back out. I keep a cold pack in my bag to refridgerate my computer, but I worry that the condensation from the humid air will offset the benefits of a cool processor. Whatever; I need chill tunes if I’m going to bike around in this weather.
A constant source of frustration for me is communicating the local importance of global problems. Climate change is real, and it’s serious – but at the same time it can be intangible and diffuse. I live in the North Carolina piedmont, hours away from the beach. I can explain to my neighbors that ocean acidification is a serious problem, that the demise of coral reefs would mean the loss of food and resources for the third world. But even if they believe me, even if they agree that it’s bad news, it can still be hard to see how global warming effects them personally, as a homeowner, a farmer, a pet owner or the parent of a young child, a worker with a daily commute. How does carbon dioxide pollution impact North Carolina and beyond?
Let’s start at the beach. An obvious problem here is rising sea levels. As the ocean heats up, it expands; as ice heats up, it melts and drains into the sea (or, it calves, falls into the sea, and then melts). This causes a slow but steady rise in sea level. Sea level is predicted to rise by a meter (maybe more) over the 21st century, and 4-6 m over the next few centuries. This is bad news bears – in many coastal counties, more than 10% of the population lives within a meter of high tide. The threat to homes and businesses is worsened by storm surges, which will also be higher as the seas rise [Strauss 2012]. North Carolina has a unique relationship with sea level rise. The coastal salt marshes have recorded 2,100 years of sea level history in their smelly mucky sediments; the ocean stayed relatively stable up until about 1880, when it began to creep upwards. The average rate of sea level rise for the NC coast over the 20th century was ‘greater than any other persistent, century-scale trend’ in the marsh’s memory. During this time period, the seas rose 3.5 times faster than they did even during the Medieval Warm Period, and regional sea level rose faster than model predictions over the 20th century (though the uncertainties involved overlap.) [Kemp et al. 2011]
But what’s really special is the state legislature’s reaction to the rising tide. This June, the NC Senate infamously outlawed the use of accelerating sea level scenarios in planning urban development. The usual astroturfing seems to be at play: the money trail for this legislation leads back to the Locke Foundation; spokespeople and nonprofits proliferate to establish a consent factory. These hijinks are as cynical as they are asinine: not only is global sea level rise accelerating [Church & White 2006], but North Carolina is at the southern end of a ‘hotspot’ where the sea is rising 3-4 times as fast as the global average, [Sallenger et al. 2012] putting its coastline at exceptional risk. The legislation is also a lovely inversion on a popular skuptik trope, that of an authoritarian scientific Orthodoxy dictating Truth and squelching dissidents. In this case, it’s the state government which has declared which climatic scenarios are kosher and which are thought crimes, favoring the least alarming. The proposed law would not merely declare what course sea level rise will take in the years to come, but also prohibit state planning agencies from considering alternatives. Not content to legislate straight marriage as the only valid relationship, the Old North State is considering straight lines as the only acceptable graph.
“You need to move indoors right now.”
It’s Friday night, 29 June, and forecasts of a sweltering weekend have already started to come true. I am sifting through hardware at work when the power goes out. It takes a moment to register: I’m plunged into inky darkness and I wonder if I can navigate through the bicycle frames, boxes of bolts, detritus, without falling on my face. The air compressor has shut off; the only sound is the wind-blown debris clattering on the metal roof and the bleat of my laptop, now on battery power. With a wireless USB stick, I still have an internet connection, and I pull up a radar map.
I run outside. The moon is fullish, weird, clouds zipping past it and ringed with haze. There’s lightning in the distance, but I doubt there will be rain, and the wind! It’s no wonder that the power is gone. The nearby stand of pine trees is arching under the gusts. I wonder if I’m safe: If a tree blows over, the warehouse will probably withstand the impact, right? But the doppler map shows a blobby red and green line advancing and the national weather service is issuing alerts like they’re going out of style. Would I be able to see a funnel cloud coming? What does a green sky look like when there is no light? A few drops of rain fall but they evaporate almost instantly and wouldn’t have coated the ground had they lasted. The wind strengthens and the trees bend further. I hold up my arm to protect my eyes from the blowing dust; the gravel of the parking lot is bigger than quarters, but it’s nonetheless skittering around under the force of the gusts…
I was fortunate enough to only catch the weak, southernmost tail of a devestating storm called a ‘derecho’, which ripped across the mideastern US with hurricane-force winds, killing 22 and leaving several million without electricity (and thus air conditioning) in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave. A week later the mercury was still boiling over and half a million people were still in the dark. At least 82 people would die from the heat, including two children in Chatanooga, one 3 and the other 5. The windstorm and the searing heat didn’t just coincide; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that conditions which lead to heat waves also lead to derecho formation: “Some of the most intense summer derechos … occur on the fringes of major heat waves. Two notorious examples include the Mid-July 1995 derechos that affected New York and Canada, and the more recent Ohio Valley-Mid Atlantic derecho of June 2012. The relationship is more than statistical. It turns out that the meteorological conditions favorable for large-scale heat waves often also are conducive to derechos“. My fear of funnel clouds wasn’t unfounded, either: derechos are associated with tornado formation. [NOAA]
What exactly does this wild weather mean? After all, records do get broken occaisonally, even in a world with a stationary climate. But then again, broken records are only part of the story; records-setting events would be distributed
more or less equally through the record with an inverse relationship to record length (derp) in a stationary climate, while in reality these events are clustered towards the end of the record. Recent research has investigated the significance of this observation, finding the probability of such an event to be quite low in a stationary climate, less than 0.1%. [ Zorita, Stocker, & von Storch 2008 ] It’s also true that the temperatures of successive months are correllated, meaning that the probability of each breaking records are not independent events. We should think carefully about the significance of strings of record-breaking events. But many semi-reasonable probability estimates indicates that the current hot period would be very unusual without climate change.* I’ve always agreed that we should be careful in attributing individual weather events to anthropogenic global warming; that it was usually more meaningful to attribute long-term trends to climate change rather than unique events. “If a baseball player takes steroids, she will hit more home runs, but no individual home run can easily be connected to steroid use,” the reasoning goes. It’s good to be careful, but… I just don’t know anymore. We’re doing a large-scale geophysical experiment; its hard to believe that accellerating CO2 forcing up by more than an order of magnitude [Joos & Spahni 2008] without seeing spectacular effects, and meanwhile spectacular events are occurring. At what point does the null hypothesis shift from “observed unusual event is caused by climate change”, rather than “observed unusual event is part of the natural variability”? At the same time, shouldn’t our understanding of causation permit an event to be caused by climate change AND to be a part of natural variability?
Sea water expands when you heat it, and roads do too. On Derecho Friday, in Raleigh, NC, the temperature hit 105, breaking the 1945 record by 4 degrees. Swelling concrete caused Interstate 440 to buckle, requiring the road be shut down and Friday’s rush hour traffic diverted. Infrastructure melted down across the country. Roads kept buckling; in Wisconsin, an unexpected speedbump caught an SUV driver unaware, sending the car flying and its passengers to the hospital. A week later, it was 98F at Reagan Airport in Washington D.C., so hot that the tarmac began to melt on the runways. An airplane sunk into the hot mess and got stuck; it took engine thrust and a dedicated tow truck to free the plane. The next day it hit 105. In Illinois, the Braidwood nuclear power plant had to seek special permission to keep running: the ponds of water it used as coolant had hit 102; the maximum the plant was rated for was 100. This is the second time this has happened: in 2000, the maximum allowable intake temperature was bumped up from 98. In Chicago, schools closed, pavement buckled, and a train went off its rails. “Authorities believe the steel rails may have expanded, contributing to the crash” Two people died. It wasn’t the only such incident.
A spokesman for the Braidwood nuclear power plant remarked: “I’m not a climatologist. But clearly the calculations when the plant was first operated in 1986 are not what is sufficient today, not all the time.” This underscores the importance of the speed of climate change, something I have emphasized when it comes to ecology, but is now starting to show up in our infrastructure. Motorways and tramlines are designed to function within a certain set of ambient conditions. When the environment changes faster than the expected lifetime of our infrastructure, things break. The same research article which highlighted the abrupt acceleration of greenhouse forcing began: “The rate of change of climate codetermines the global warming impacts on natural and socioeconomic systems and their capabilities to adapt.” [Joos & Spahni 2008] It’s not just the corals we have to worry about – its also the roads, the rails, and the reactors, and any other piece of civil engineering premised upon a stable climate.
Specious and I sit in a parking deck near Duke hospital, watching the storm. Lightning is crackling and arcing in the distance. Trees are bowing under the oncoming wind, but there’s little debris blowing around – anything that could blow off was scattered by the derecho the night before. Rain patters for a few minutes, but it’s light, and the hot pavement evaporates it all.
“What we’re seeing now is the future. … And we better prepare for it. … This is just the beginning.”
I grew up in the Appalachian mountains, on a farm beside the New River. Until the early 2000’s, there was a stand of pine trees on the hill behind the house, the remains of the timber industry from a century before. If you looked closely, you could still see the grid they were planted on. Then one day I noticed that the trees were leaking. There were bore holes appearing in the bark, sap oozing out and crusting. We had pine bark beetles. We had to preemptively cut the trees down to prevent the sort of fire hazards that have been spilling through conifer forrests across the country. My dad would operate the chainsaw and I would work the comealong, a winch that would put tension on the tree and direct its fall towards where the operator had been standing: as soon as the trunk began crackling, I took off down hill, hopping over felled trees to get out of the way. We thought we’d sell them for the wood but we weren’t even able to recover the cost of logging. Can I really connect our beetle infestation to climate change? I don’t know – there’s research suggesting that bark beetles’ range will expand into ecologically unprepared regions, but this applies to the western forests where we now see wildfires [Logan & Powell 2001]. I’m unfamiliar with the situation in the Southeastern land of the pines, yet I can’t help but wonder…
Aside from quantitative record-breaking, there’s qualitative weirdness. Statistically, something weird is bound to be happening at some point on the earth’s surface. In a world with so many observers and increasingly interconnected telecommunications, is ‘global weirding’ a real phenomenon, or an artefact of reporting? Focussing on the noteworthy outliers might lead one to confirmation bias. Focusing on the continental US ignores 98% of the Earth’s surface, while expanding the area of interest gives more opportunity for the outliers to crop up. And then there’s the question of attribution. I’ve always adhered to the idea that individual events can’t be traced back to global warming, only statistical trends. I don’t know if I believe that any more. Once weather events become so unusual, outliers among outliers, shouldn’t our default assumption be that they are the product of a perturbation in progress, rather than background processes? If Moscow broiling and Tennessee drowning isn’t sufficient, what will it take? Will we still demand elaborate attribution studies when devesating tornado outbreaks strike once a decade? Twice a decade? Five times?
During the winter of 2009-2010, an enormous ice storm snapped trees and knocked out power all across Boone. In March 2011, a freak storm obliterated plant life on the Todd farm: “We had 1/2 hour of hail, some of it pea size, most was marble size, but some up to an inch in diameter; all the fruit trees, grapes and blueberries are stripped; the strawberries, onions and garlic flattened; the seedling in my driveway are just little stalks; and my goat barn flooded for the first time in 26 years: 12-14 inches of mud, manure and wet straw.” Hail on this scale is unheard of in decades of local memory. A year later, ‘apocalyptic’ hail was falling on Texas, forming drifts feet deep in places, and Todd was getting uncomfortably crispy as the heat wave continued and no rain fell. Yet Todd was still somehow outside of the massive drought that was settling on the country. Spring came early, but a longer growing season isn’t everything; prolonged dryness and heat have hit corn crops with exceptional ferocity. More than half the country is officially in a drought, and phrases like ‘natural disaster’ are starting to fly around. Even where the lakes and ponds aren’t drying out, the water is heating up and losing its ability to hold oxygen. Sports fish have bobbed to the surface by the thousands, suffocated.
I don’t know if the beesuit is trapping moisture close to my face or if it’s really that humid, but burning sweat is trickling into my eyes and I can’t wipe them with my facemask on. My mom has cracked open a bee hive and the bees are crawling around, nonchalant for having their house being actively dismantled. Mom reaches down and picks out a small black dot from among the crawling orange fuzzballs. It’s a hive beetle. Unchecked, they’ll wreck utter havoc. Pictures of their infestations bring on an organic nausea I haven’t felt since I left the Rickenbacker playing System Shock II. The mountains didn’t used to see much of them, she tells me – but now as the weather warms, their distribution range is spreading uphill, much like the range of the bark beetles. Warming is problematic for bees in other ways as well: many don’t leave the hive when it’s exceptionally hot, while others may lose their food sources to shifting geography or altered seasonal timing. There are bees which can withstand high temperatures; some even survive in the Arizona Desert. But to do so they need water, and they are thus confined to scattered oases. The oases are so spread out that bees can’t really migrate from one to another as their environment dries; they’re trapped. The bees which are preadapted to a warmer world, whose genes are perhaps key to maintaining apiculture in a warming world, are uniquely threatened by global warming. [Le Conte & Navajas 2008]
– Journalist Eugene Robinson
It’s night but it hasn’t cooled; it’s too dark to see clearly but we’re digging the grave anyway. It’s 8 July and the air is soggy. So is my shirt. We’ve found a nice spot by the railroad tracks, next to a creek and not far from where I watched the trees swaying in the derecho. A train passes as Specious and I dig. We joke about it derailing and spilling into the valley where we work. Our payload is in the trunk of his car. It’s Wolf, Wikipedia celebrity and Durham personality. The white german shepherd is wrapped in a blanket, still warm. I am still absorbing the details as I scoop up silt and rocks: Specious and Wolf were visiting a church when they got stranded in Raleigh, as the temperature hit 105, breaking the 1977 record by two degrees and exceeding typical temperatures by fifteen. His phone battery died and no one would help him recharge, give him a ride, or let Wolf in their air conditioned business. On the way home, despite attempts to keep him cool and hydrated, Wolf collapsed from heat exhaustion; because they can only dissipate heat by panting, dogs are especially susceptible to hot, humid conditions. He died shortly afterwards. There were other factors involved in his death, certainly: the lack of compassion and charity amongst professing Christians, for example, or the perverse institution of ‘property rights’ which protects the locks on empty air conditioned skyscrapers while the vulnerable sweat outside. These are the contours along which we can adapt socially, but without major technical and economic reorganization, the hazards we face remain, and will only worsen with time.
I pause to wipe my face. There’s supposed to be cold air blowing in from the north over the next few days; when it hits the humidity we’ve built up, we should expect some impressive downpours. Will the creek flood? Will it reach the cairn we’re piling on the grave? I don’t know. I pile on a few more rocks, just in case.
John A. Church, & Neil J. White (2006). A 20th century acceleration in global sea-level rise Geophysical Research Letters, 33 DOI: 10.1029/2005GL024826
Fortunat Joos, & Renato Spahni (2008). Rates of change in natural and anthropogenic radiative forcing over the past 20,000 years PNAS, 105 (5) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707386105
Andrew C. Kemp, Benjamin P. Horton, Jeffrey P. Donnelly, Michael E. Mann, Martin Vermeer, & Stefan Rahmstorff (2011). Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015619108
Le Conte Y, & Navajas M (2008). Climate change: impact on honey bee populations and diseases. Revue scientifique et technique (International Office of Epizootics), 27 (2) PMID: 18819674
Jesse A. Logan, & James A. Powell (2001). Ghost Forests, Global Warming & the Mountain Pine Beetle AMERICAN ENTOMOLOGIST , 47 (3), 160-172
Asbury H. Sallenger Jr, Kara S. Doran, & Peter A. Howd (2012). Hotspot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1597
Benjamin H Strauss, Remik Ziemlinski, Jeremy L Weiss, & Jonathan T Overpeck (2012). Tidally adjusted estimates of topographic vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding for the
contiguous United States Environ. Res. Lett. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/7/1/014033
E. Zorita, T. F. Stocker, & H. von Storch1 (2008). How unusual is the recent series of warm years? Geophysical Research Letters, 35 DOI: 10.1029/2008GL036228