The Weather of the Fu­ture: Heat Waves, Ex­treme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Cli­mate-Changed Planet

by Heidi Cullen, HarperCollins, 329 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

Sci­en­tists, econ­o­mists, en­gi­neers, city plan­ners, na­tional se­cu­rity ex­perts, farm­ers, tra­di­tional hunters, so­cial work­ers, and oth­ers from Bangladesh to Green­land, San Fran­cisco Bay to New York City are grap­pling with cli­mate change now and plan­ning for the fu­ture. In her new book, cli­ma­tol­o­gist Heidi Cullen takes us to the places where these peo­ple live and work and shares their sto­ries with us. For in­stance, be­cause of al­ready ris­ing sea lev­els, the Sacra­men­toSan Joaquin Delta, on which the Cen­tral Val­ley in Cal­i­for­nia de­pends for fresh wa­ter, could be trans­formed within 12 hours into a sa­line es­tu­ary by a ma­jor storm or earth­quake; sim­i­larly, a lot of New York City’s crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing trans­porta­tion and sewer sys­tems, would be sub­merged by a ma­jor storm. The United States could find it­self in a ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute with Canada over a North­west Pas­sage through an open Arc­tic Sea. And Al­bu­querque fig­ures in a sec­tion ti­tled “The World’s Most Vul­ner­a­ble Places” be­cause of the in­creas­ing threat of drought.

Cullen, who has a Ph.D. from Columbia Uni­ver­sity, is widely known for her work as a cli­mate ex­pert on The Weather Chan­nel. She is a vis­it­ing lec­turer at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity and CEO of Cli­mate Cen­tral, a non­profit cli­mate re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion. Be­sides pro­vid­ing a cur­rent pic­ture of seven of the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble re­gions and po­ten­tial fu­ture sit­u­a­tions, her book gives a his­tory and ex­pla­na­tion of cli­mate sci­ence that is highly read­able. It clar­i­fies the dis­tinc­tion be­tween weather and cli­mate and takes the reader through the early days of cli­ma­tol­ogy in the 19th cen­tury, when sci­en­tists — brav­ing the de­ri­sion of skep­tics — showed ev­i­dence of past ice ages and sought to un­der­stand why and how the cli­mate changes.

Cullen gives a ba­sic, if sim­plis­tic, de­scrip­tion of the car­bon cy­cle and how sci­en­tists Joseph Fourier and John Tyn­dall in the early 19th cen­tury de­ter­mined that cer­tain gases, in­clud­ing car­bon diox­ide, act as the Earth’s ther­mo­stat. Fourier coined the terms “plan­e­tary en­ergy bal­ance” and “green­house ef­fect” in the 1820s. Based on their work, the Swedish sci­en­tist Svante Ar­rhe­nius cal­cu­lated how much the Earth’s tem­per­a­ture would drop if the car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere were halved and how much the tem­per­a­ture would in­crease if it were dou­bled. In 1896 he pre­dicted that the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els — the Earth’s stock­pile of car­bon — could cause global warm­ing.

Sci­en­tists have since built on Ar­rhe­nius’ work. They have doc­u­mented an un­equiv­o­cal warm­ing of the cli­mate sys­tem. They have col­lected data on the rise of car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere since the be­gin­ning of the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion us­ing ice cores that pro­vide a pic­ture of at­mo­spheric con­cen­tra­tions of car­bon diox­ide for hun­dreds of thou­sands of years. “Car­bon fin­ger­prints” — the spe­cific iso­topic com­po­si­tion of car­bon mol­e­cules — are used to iden­tify the sources of car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere.

Sci­en­tists have also de­vel­oped more so­phis­ti­cated mod­els of the Earth’s at­mo­spheric pro­cesses. Cullen’s ex­pla­na­tion of how cli­mate mod­els are used to make pre­dic­tions and how cli­ma­tol­o­gists test their pre­dic­tions may serve to elim­i­nate a va­ri­ety of mis­con­cep­tions about cli­mate sci­ence.

Some me­dia per­son­al­i­ties present cli­mate change as a de­bate. The de­bate, how­ever, is pri­mar­ily re­stricted to the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal arena. In the world­wide sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, 98 per­cent of cli­mate re­searchers most ac­tively pub­lish­ing in the field are con­vinced of the ev­i­dence for hu­man­caused, that is, an­thro­pogenic cli­mate change or ACC. Agree­ment among sci­en­tists that hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties are mod­i­fy­ing the cli­mate has been well doc­u­mented. The Amer­i­can Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal So­ci­ety, the Amer­i­can Geo­phys­i­cal Union, the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences, and the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence have all is­sued state­ments af­firm­ing ACC. In a re­cent House sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing on cli­mate sci­ence, U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Repub­li­can from South Carolina, used the anal­ogy of a sick child in ref­er­ence to cli­mate, warn­ing of the risk in­volved in choos­ing to lis­ten to the two out of 100 doc­tors who dis­agree with the other 98 about what to do.

Cullen’s book pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for the av­er­age per­son to be­gin to un­der­stand the ba­sic ev­i­dence be­hind the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus as well as how peo­ple world­wide are re­spond­ing to the changes al­ready oc­cur­ring and pre­par­ing for best-guess pre­dic­tions about the im­pli­ca­tions for fu­ture weather. In her in­tro­duc­tion, Cullen writes, “It’s a book about cli­mate sci­ence and cli­mate sci­en­tists, but ul­ti­mately it … il­lus­trates that do­ing noth­ing and re­main­ing com­pla­cent are tan­ta­mount to ac­cept­ing a fu­ture forty years down the road in which your town, your neigh­bor­hood, and even your back­yard will not look the same.”

— Su­san Mead­ows

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