No one is worrying about a predicted global warming trend these days in Alaska, where an unprecedented high pressure zone in January sent temperatures plummeting so low that they could not be recorded on thermometers.
But try telling that to ski resort operators in the Swiss Alps, who have had to shut down operations in the face of one of the warmest, driest winters on record, including a 68-day period without rain or snow--the longest dry spell in 125 years of record-keeping.
Winter likewise is little more than a memory in Scandinavia and Japan, both of which experienced the mildest January since they began keeping track of temperatures in the 1800s.
In Argentina, where it is summer, temperatures soared far above normal in January, accompanied by drought conditions reminiscent of last year’s dust bowl in America’s Midwest, while in tropical Maracaibo, Venezuela, temperatures dove from a normally steamy 104 to a cool 50--the lowest in a decade.
Steady Rain in Dry Season
And up and down the coast of East Africa, rain has been falling steadily through what is supposed to be the dry season, producing bumper crops in countries where a few years ago thousands of people died of starvation.
“The weather this year is extremely unusual, in ways that grip the imagination,” said Peter Usher of the U.N. Environment Program. “It is almost a case of rather than look for someplace where the weather is unusual you look for someplace where it is normal.”
Usher, the chief meteorologist at UNEP’s world headquarters in Nairobi, is no alarmist. Cautious and conscientious, he is quick to point out that people have short memories when it comes to the weather, and everyone thinks he knows more than the weatherman.
But, he conceded in a recent interview, “The weather conditions this year may be unique. I cannot recall a year in which more countries have experienced unusual weather at the same time and have recorded new absolutes (all-time highs and lows).”
Recent weather “anomalies” noted by Usher:
- The drought of 1988 in America’s grain belt.
- Unseasonal rainfall in Africa after decades of drought.
- Extremely mild winter throughout Europe, breaking all-time records in Scandinavia and elsewhere.
- Major Caribbean storms last fall of unprecedented ferocity.
To those peculiarities, a check of United Press International bureaus around the world added:
- The Alaska cold snap that sent barometric pressure so high and temperatures so low that neither could be reliably recorded.
- An extremely wet summer in Japan followed by the warmest winter in 110 years of record keeping, with similarly mild weather in Korea.
- Unusual dampness, cloud and rain in South Africa, where warm, dry weather is normal for this time of year.
- Drought and unusually high temperatures in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, with drought conditions also in Chile.
- An unusually cold winter in Venezuela, both in coastal Maracaibo and in the highlands at Caracas, with temperatures dropping more than 27 degrees below normal.
- An unseasonably warm Southern Hemisphere summer in Peru along with the heaviest rainfall in five years causing flooding and crop loss.
Sign of ‘Greenhouse Effect’?
Does all this herald the arrival of the long-predicted “greenhouse effect,” a global warming trend caused by industrial pollution that traps the sun’s energy in the atmosphere?
Usher said some scientists are convinced that it is, among them such climatologists as James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, who testified to that effect before Congress last year.
Others point instead to “El Nino” and its counterpart “La Nina,” warm and cold bodies of water that settle in the Pacific Ocean off Peru and upset circulation patterns in the atmosphere, creating havoc with the weather as far away as Africa.
Most of the effects are within the normal range of probability, Usher said, “but we cannot ascribe all that is happening with any certainty to any one cause. It may be a mixture of causes, including some we don’t even know anything about.”
Greenhouse or not, however, the world is in for more weird weather.
‘Climate Will Change’
“The climate will change in the near future, even if it has not changed now,” Usher said. “This year’s anomalies, even if not the result, are an example of what will happen when the climate changes, and will occur year after year.
“The precursor of the greenhouse effect is increased volatility in the weather,” he said. “There will be many variations that are both warmer and colder than average.”
Usher noted that man has already increased Earth’s carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 50% since the beginning of the Industrial Age and will increase them by that much again in the next 40 years.
“We have already committed ourselves to climate change, even if we changed the way we behave today,” he said. “Our only choice is to limit the extent to which the climate will eventually change.”
Despite his concerns, Usher said he and other climatologists are trying to resist the “disaster movie syndrome.”
“People like to be frightened, (and) to some extent we are pandering to them by giving them disaster scenarios,” he said.
“We have a problem, but we have an opportunity to solve that problem if we don’t panic. . . . The end of the world is not nigh. We have abused the environment, but we have the means to repair it.”