In his famous short story Typhoon, Joseph Conrad writes of a negligent sea-captain that “Omens were as nothing to him, and he was unable to discover the message of a prophecy till the fulfilment had brought it home to his very door.”
This is perhaps nowhere more relevant than in the context of the attempt by anti-global warming nutters to explain away recent European ice storms as evidence that global warming is a fiction. Actually, what is happening is a destabilisation of the climate which mainstream scientists have begun to call the “Warm Arctic / Cool Continents” syndrome. [lprent: see NOAA Arctic report card – Atmosphere]
Normally, when the arctic is frozen, a current of air flows around the arctic and blocks its extreme cold from Europe. The prevailing winds in countries like the UK are westerly and winters are mild, most of the time.
But when the ice starts to disappear, there is a significant warming effect from the seawater, which is tens of degrees warmer than the air in winter, and this disrupts the circumpolar air current, producing a system of north-south prevailing winds instead of east-west prevailing winds. Thus, Britain is hit by northerlies instead of westerlies, and the northerlies are so cold that they produce temperatures of 20 below C in the UK and nearly 40 below in Switzerland, as measured recently.
The flip side is that the arctic gets significantly warmer because the northerlies over the continents are matched by southerlies elsewhere, particularly in the mid-ocean areas such as the North Atlantic. It’s been likened by the same mainstream scientists to leaving the fridge door open – the room gets colder and the fridge gets warmer. Thus even as Britain froze in 20 below temperatures this Xmas, parts of Greenland were at +9 degrees due to warm southerlies coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, and to reiterate that’s in the middle of the arctic winter. This means that the ice is continuing to melt in winter as well as in summer. Because of this ‘fridge door’ effect some quite reputable scientists now think the arctic ocean will be free of floating ice in summer as soon as 2013.
A further effect is that the exposed water, tens of degrees warmer than the air, literally steams and puts huge volumes of moisture into the air, so that the northerlies flowing southward dump huge volumes of snow on the landscape.
The image I’ve posted here isn’t a scene from The Day After Tomorrow, but a 7 January 2010 weather shot (click it for larger image). For a curious fact is that all this accords with a theory of the ice ages put forward in the 1950s by researchers Maurice Ewing and William Donn, as described on the website of the American Institute of Physics :
Our current epoch of ice ages, Ewing and Donn argued, had begun when the North Pole wandered into the Arctic Ocean basin. The ocean, cooling but still free of ice, had evaporated moisture and promoted a pattern of severe weather. Heavy snows fell all around the Arctic, building continental ice sheets. That withdrew water from the world’s oceans, and the sea level dropped. This blocked the shallow channels through which warm currents flowed into the Arctic Ocean, so the ocean froze over. That meant the continental ice sheets were deprived of storms bringing moisture evaporated from the Arctic Ocean, so the sheets began to dwindle. The seas rose, warm currents spilled back into the Arctic Ocean, and its ice cover melted. And so, in a great tangle of feedbacks, a new cycle began.
This theory was especially interesting in view of reports that northern regions had been noticeably warming and ice was retreating. Ewing and Donn suggested that the polar ocean might become ice-free, and launch us into a new ice age, within the next few thousand years — or even the next few hundred years.
Or by 2013. The AIP website points out that there were some problems with the Ewing/Donn theory, and it’s 50 years out of date now. but nonetheless the general idea, of a warm Arctic Ocean breeding huge snowfalls all over its continental margin is completely plausible, and fits the more recent Warm Arctic / Cool Continents model.
While it seems nobody thinks we’ll actually have an actual Day After Tomorrow scenario once the polar ice is gone, there is the possibility of something like a reversion to the conditions of the “Little Ice Age” which followed hard on the heels of the Mediaeval Warm Period in Europe, and perhaps for the same reasons. During the Little Ice Age Europe was hit by more and worse storms than today, such as the All Saints Day storm of November 1570 which is estimated to have killed 400,000 people, mainly through flooding in countries such as Holland. While we would expect the casualty toll to be vastly less in a modern society, insurance companies like Swiss Re are nonetheless very worried about the economic implications of a return to such a brutal climate. It’s easily possible to imagine a situation in which power lines down for weeks every winter. The costs would dwarf anything we are likely to spend on developing new green technologies, carbon taxes and so on.
You can search all this stuff using key phrases like warm arctic – cool continents. But the key take home is just the utter triviality and stupidity of the skeptics, who are so much like Conrad’s idiot skipper, sailing blithely into a typhoon:
Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way … But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and immoderate wrath, the wrath that passes exhausted but never appeased — the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crimes and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines and floods, and yet knows nothing of what these things mean…
Or to put it another way: you might not be interested in global warming, but global warming is interested in you.
(I am indebted to a letter to the editor in a recent issue of National Geographic, in which the Conrad quote appears in this connection.)