Natural Perspectives: Current situation more like 'global weirding'

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center's "State of the Climate: Global Analysis for Annual 2010" makes for some pretty sobering reading. Vic and I waded through the nine-page document over the hot Fourth of July weekend.

Looking at the combined global land and ocean surface temperatures, scientists determined that 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year ever. That was for the whole world. But when they looked at just the Northern Hemisphere, there was no tie. For those of us living north of the equator, 2010 was the hottest year on record.

Vic and I know that there are people out there who still don't believe in global warming. But not believing it doesn't mean that it isn't happening. The facts are clear. The 10 warmest years on record, in descending order, are 2010, 2005, 1998, 2003, 2002, 2009, 2006, 2007, 2004 and 2001. Nine of the hottest years on record occurred in the past ten years.

The increase in temperature is not a nice, smooth mathematical function. Nor is it uniform over the entire planet. For example, Russia, Europe and Asia had heat waves last summer that NOAA ranked as the most significant climate event of the year. But things were fairly normal here in Southern California.

Sometimes global warming gets confusing, like during a negative Arctic oscillation. That's when cold air from the Arctic slides south, allowing warm air to move north. The result is unseasonable warming in the far north and bitterly cold snowstorms in eastern North America, Europe and Asia. That is what was seen last year.

The record cold weather in the American South last year caused ocean temperatures in the Florida Keys to drop below 59 degrees Fahrenheit. That bleached and killed coral reefs, which aren't adapted to survive temperatures that cold. Conversely, Canada had its warmest winter since 1948 when it began keeping records. That's one reason why we call our current climate situation "global weirding."

Here in Huntington Beach, the weather stays fairly constant. But last year in Pakistan, temperatures soared to a record 128 degrees. Russia experienced a two-month-long heat wave, with a record-breaking 100.8 degrees in Moscow. That high temperature broke the previous high temperature record of 98.9, which had been set just four days previously. Sadly, that record-setting heat wave caused an estimated 15,000 deaths in Russia.

While the heat was on in Russia, Pakistan experienced record flooding that covered 20% of the country. A whopping 12 inches of rain fell from July 28 to 30 last year, causing the worst flooding since 1929. At least 1,500 people succumbed to floods and landslides during that event.

Last year, China had its warmest summer since 1961. Japan had its warmest summer since it began keeping records in 1898. And what was going on south of the equator while the north was sweltering? Why, Australia had its coldest winter in 13 years. But don't think you can escape global warming by moving to Australia. It had its warmest decade on record between 2001 and 2010. Overall, temperatures in Australia are up too.

One of the odd things about this global climate change that we're experiencing is extreme flooding in some areas and extreme drought in others. That may be why NOAA includes precipitation in its report as well as temperature. Last year, Australia experienced record rainfall while Brazil suffered one of its worst droughts in 40 years. The climate pendulum is swinging wildly, bringing more frequent and more severe storms.

NOAA produces monthly reports as well. Its most recent report is for May 2011. The picture for this year is about the same as 2010: more heat. May of this year was the 10th warmest on record for combined land and sea temperatures; the period of January to May was the 12th warmest.

NOAA also reported that La Niña ended in May, returning the Pacific Ocean to neutral conditions, i.e., no La Niña and no El Niño. That means that we should have average rainfall in Huntington Beach during the upcoming rainy season next fall through spring. If you'd like to read the NOAA reports for yourself, visit http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global.

But hey, the weather here is great. Why should we care about global warming? It isn't like it's going to be too hot for us, right? Wrong. People die by the tens of thousands during heat waves. And for another thing, global climate change affects crops. I don't know about you, but I like to eat food and I like it to be affordable. Agriculture needs a reliable climate, not excessive heat, unexpected freezes, drought or flooding. Global climate change is definitely going to affect the world food supply. In the face of an ever-increasing population, that's a disaster in the making.

Our civilization developed during the past 10,000 years, a time of stable climate. Well, we have destabilized the heck out of our climate by pouring huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over a relatively short time period. Carbon was sequestered out of the atmosphere and into coal and oil over millions of years. But in the past 100 years, we've burned up most of the oil that nature created and a heck of a lot of coal and natural gas as well. All of that carbon dioxide in the air is causing our planet to warm. It's called the greenhouse effect. Solar radiation becomes trapped and heat can't escape.

But if people don't believe that global warming is a problem, then there will be no fixing it. And if governments across the globe don't act to curb carbon emissions, and act immediately, then we'll all be going someplace hot in a hand basket. That someplace hot is going to be right here.

Thank goodness the city of Huntington Beach is doing something about global warming. Last October, the city signed an agreement with SunEdison to install a trio of solar carport canopy structures at the Huntington Beach Civic Center, Central Library and City Yard. The structures are going up now.

The new solar arrays will provide 3.15 million kilowatt-hours of clean, renewable energy each year, enough to power about 5,900 homes. That's a lot of natural gas that won't need to be burned to generate electricity over the next 20 years. It's a start.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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