by Joe Logan
President, Ohio Farmers Union
Northeastern Ohio winters are notoriously gloomy. In a normal year, only 32% of the total available sunlight manages to pierce the cloud layers that roll south from Lake Erie during the late fall and early winter months. It’s rare to see a sunrise this time of the year, but December 20, 2016 has been a pleasant exception to that rule. I’m always surprised at how far south it has migrated and how impotent its rays have become. That is especially true today, as it has reached its most southerly path. Despite this season’s customary gloom, I have always found encouragement in the fact that following the winter solstice, days will begin to progressively lengthen, in their inexorable march toward spring.
Each season carries a similarity to that of the prior year, as well as its own individual signature. December of 2016 carries on the tradition of marking a rather dramatic departure from the warmer autumn temperatures, and true to the variety that is inherent in nature, this year shows a distinctly chilly identity of its own.
Our summer and autumn have been quite warm this year. In fact most months in 2016 have established records for the highest average global temperatures ever recorded. The undeniable accumulation of data clearly demonstrate to anyone with even a slightly open mind, that climate change is happening and that humankind will need to be addressing the causes and adapting our behavior. The sooner we acknowledge that and set ourselves to the task, the better it will be for all of us.
Adaptation will not be a linear process, as natural systems are notoriously dynamic. We cannot simply crank up our air conditioners to accommodate to a warming planet. Climate scientists have long been warning us to be prepared for a wide variety of weather conditions, including an extreme warmth in summer, extreme cold in winter seasons and extreme weather events, including intense storms in all seasons.
Even here in Northern Ohio, a white Christmas is a bit of a statistical rarity. This year, however, it is pretty well locked in, as we are in the midst of what weather forecasters have dubbed a “polar vortex”, -a protracted period of extremely cold temperatures characterized by an abnormal intrusion of frigid arctic air plunging into temperate latitudes.
The jet stream is a well-known fixture in climate dynamics. It is a reasonably consistent, stream of air that circles the globe at velocities of around 250 MPH, keeping polar air corralled in the arctic regions and acting as a barrier between cold arctic air and warmer temperate air. The polar vortex represents a distortion or weakening of the normally predictable jet stream, allowing massive volumes of polar air to escape containment by the jet stream and invade temperate regions.
Polar vortices are not only uncomfortable, they are dangerous, with extreme cold temperatures, ice and snow storms threatening livestock and causing significant property damage. Historically, such phenomena have been rare, but in recent years, they seem to have become more of a regular occurrence.
Having suffered through polar vortices in each of the past three winters, we would prefer to think that we have been on a string of bad luck. Unfortunately, recent research and newly emerging theories suggest that this phenomenon may be a fairly common occurrence in future years – and is a direct result of the recent, rapid loss of sea ice in the artic regions.
Per Professor Jennifer Francis, from Rutgers University, the arctic ice sheet has lost about 70% of its volume since 1970 and that ice sheet is now melting at an unprecedented rate. Recent temperature readings in the Russian Arctic show alarming temperature anomalies, registering some 33 degrees above normal on the Centigrade scale. This rapid warming of the arctic reduces the differential between the temperature of the air masses in the arctic versus that of temperate regions. It is this differential that fuels the jet stream. The reduced differential lowers the velocity of the jet stream, allowing some portions to sag into temperate regions, while other portions pump warmer temperate air into the arctic.
So, the abnormal cold temperatures associated with a polar vortex, which could ordinarily be interpreted as refuting climate change, may actually be one of the strongest and most worrisome indicators of the real time impacts of climate change. Worse yet, shrinking ice sheets and changes in global wind patterns, such as the slowing and wobbling of the jet stream, could foretell changes in global ocean current patterns. As we know, ocean circulation patterns are major drivers of climate in many regions of the world.
The take away message is that we need to get to the business of addressing climate change by reducing pollution from carbon, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gasses. Farmers could play a key role in doing so, by sequestering carbon in their soils. The other take away is that farmers and all citizens need to assume an agile mind set, as our comfortable and reliable climate may not remain so for long.
Just as the winter solstice marks both the sun’s most remote path and the beginning of its northward march, let’s hope that climatic changes precipitated by arctic ice cap degradation, serve as a wake-up call to our planet’s citizens – and ignites a unified effort to limit greenhouse gas pollution.