A Most Unusual Nebraska January

by Bruce Johansen

Like anyone else, I can draw some joy out of a sunny, mild day in the middle of January. We take enough punishment in Nebraska to deserve a few of them. But nearly a month of them, back to back (from mid-December, 2011 to at least mid-January, 2012)? Dare I rain—or snow, sleet and hail—on this parade?

I am reminded that a few winters ago—was it 2009?—we had a blizzard, the mother of all white Christmases? Norman Rockwell it wasn’t. The Arctic Oscillation was holding sway that year, punching cold air from the Canadian Arctic and infusing it with El Nino-bred storms off the Pacific, drawing warmth and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Last year we had another taste of the same.

And this year? The Arctic Oscillation has left us alone, thus far, and we could be living in California without earthquakes.

Do I risk the wrath of my warmth-loving neighbors to ask whether this teaches us anything about climate? Anything more enduring than the truism that we live in a place where the weather is so variable that ‘average’ is little more than the mean of the extremes?

Loving Global Warming

On January 5, 2012, Omaha basked in 66-degree warmth, as several places in the area set all-time January highs—63 in Aberdeen, anyone? Seventy degrees F. in Rapid City? Break out the sun block. The local paper barely batted an editorial eyelash (it printed a weather photo a day late), but Robert Nelson, a local columnist, blurted out that he loved global warming. Who can begrudge anyone 66 degrees at a time when Omaha’s average high is about 32? I can give Nelson the benefit of the climatic doubt and assume he was giving us some of his renowned sarcasm.

More than a thousand record highs were reached in the United States during the first week of 2012. How mild was January? On January 9, only 16 percent of the continental United States had snow cover.

It was mild enough that several thousand Sand Hill Cranes decided to postpone their migration to Texas until Central Nebraska quit feeling like Dallas. A piece in the Omaha World-Herald remarked that the drought in Texas might be causing the cranes to elect an extended stop in Nebraska, although one wonders how they know. Do they watch the “Weather Channel”? Do they read the Nebraska Report on Rick Perry’s prayers for rain?

Warm and scary

Well, then, what about climate? To begin, the scariest thing about global warming is that all we have to do to severely modify the environment that nurtures us is simply to carry on business as usual. The onset of such an apocalypse may even be pleasant at times, as with a collection of bright, dry, mild winter days. The end of our climatic world may not even be notable for its nasty storms as much as utter boredom—as the fingers of intensifying drought wrap around us.

‘Nice day,’ is a phrase I have heard a lot during these days of Nebraska winters that seem to have evolved into long thaws punctuated by short freezes. Some of us are old enough to remember local winters that began in November and ended in April, broken only by occasional (and sometimes dramatic) mid-winter thaws.

So who will begrudge us long strings of mild, dry winter days with dire warnings that this is only the beginning of a natural catalogue of weather weirdness that will turn the natural world on its head, and of feedback loops that will accelerate warmth beyond the survival tolerance of many plants and animals? One might as well save the climatic sermon for especially hot and humid summer afternoons, with the caveat that, well, weather happens, especially in Nebraska.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the most dramatic warming is taking place during the coldest periods—that is, winter nights, here, as well as in the Arctic, where cold-season warming is much more dramatic, and dangerous.

Many climate scientists believe that the middle of the 21st century will witness dramatic acceleration in global warming. Various feedback loops are expected to accelerate increases in atmospheric greenhouse-gas levels and, consequently, worldwide temperatures.

 Climatic Compound Interest

 These include several natural processes that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, such as melting permafrost in the Arctic and eventual gasification of solid methane deposits (clathrates) in the oceans. These compound existing problems like a bank account drawing an environmentally dangerous form of compound interest. Evidence is accumulating that these processes already have begun. Parts of the Trans-Siberian Railway’s track has twisted and sunk due to melting of permafrost, causing delays of service of several days at a time. Scientists in Siberia report methane and carbon dioxide bubbling out of melting permafrost that refuses to freeze even during colder seasons.

 The danger, according to many people who are familiar with the paleoclimatic record is: once this journey has begun in earnest, any return trip may become a matter of many centuries as well as copious human pain and suffering. Sir John Houghton, one of the world's leading experts on global warming, told the London Independent: "We are getting almost to the point of irreversible meltdown, and will pass it soon if we are not careful."

 The ultimate feedback is the so-called ‘methane burp,’ in which solid methane in the oceans turns to gas in the atmosphere, breaks down into carbon dioxide, and accelerates greenhouse warming. During past periods of rapid warming, methane in gaseous form has been released from the seafloor in intense eruptions. An explosive rise in temperatures on the order of about 8 degrees C. over a few thousand years accompanied a methane release 55 million years ago, called the “Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum.”

 The ‘methane’ burp will not be tomorrow’s news, but climate scientists pay attention to such things because rising greenhouse-gas emissions could be taking us down a similar path. This is the ultimate destination on a journey that begins with all those ‘Nice day, eh?’ winter salutations.

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January 23rd 2012

Mark - Using the contact information for my congressmen at http://nebraskansforpeace.org/contact-elected-officials I wrote them a letter and asked them what they are doing to end all burning of fossil fuels by 2030.