The New Normal: Is Sandy just the tip of the iceberg?
I hate to be a cynic in these times of strife, looking at the big picture rather than focusing my sympathies on individual suffering at this hour, but this is one of those cases where I can't help but speak out on a larger topic. With over 7 million people in the dark from power outages, a devastated northeastern seaboard, and countless lives affected by flooding and storm damage, it's hard not to be angry. Not at nature, mind you, nor at the subjective pass/fail judgements the media will undoubtedly heap upon government relief efforts, but at ignorance. Plain, naked ignorance.
I'm talking about the kind of ignorance displayed by people who willingly ignore evacuation orders, and who haughtily stand firm in the face of an oncoming storm, defiant in their self-importance, blindly assured that nature is tamable and incapable of breaking their will. More often than not, this same ignorance is transformed in the wake of phenomena such as Hurricane Sandy, replacing it with profound shock, hysterical panic, and resulting in an overloaded 911 system that's flooded with screams for help. They gambled, rolled the dice, and came up short.
By and far, these are also likely to be some of the same people who grumble that they're taxed too much for government services (such as the Weather Service, FEMA, and first responders), sneer at authoritative figures who they see as limiting their personal freedoms, and (of course) spin yarns of fallacy to refute the existence of human-caused climate change. This last one might seem like a stretch, but it really isn't. Like the 911 call-center result, it's all based on ignorance. The only difference being that when they roll the dice on their climate fallacies, the rest of us suffer.
I'm not in the business of Attribution Science, as it is a burgeoning field, and attributing a singular weather event to longer-term anthropogenic climate change is an equivocal task at best. Nevertheless, the question remains: Was Sandy the result of climate change? The only thing I feel comfortable saying about the subject is that, along with numerous other phenomena, Sandy's devastation is congruent with the expected effects of human-induced global warming. So if we're searching for attribution, the best summary is this: If we see continued recurrence of events such as Hurricanes Sandy and Irene over the next few years, it could be the tip of the iceberg. When historical records are broken repeatedly time after time, it signals the end of past weather trends as we know them, and the start of a new trend.
Perhaps a new normal.
Recently, Dr. James Hansen from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies likened the increase in fossil-fuel based greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to loading the "weather dice". Meaning, that by burning fossil fuels in excess, we've tilted the odds of record-breaking weather phenomena to occur more often than in pre-industrial times. Extreme events that would normally occur only once in a human lifetime could now potentially to happen several times in a person's life. I think it was said best by an incredulous Grand Forks, North Dakota resident back during the Red River Flood of 1997: "How many hundred-year floods can you have in a decade?"
So what's next? How are humans going to cope with this new normal? It's times like this -- watching the wrath of a single extreme event and it's impact on a large swath of our population -- that reminds me just how tenuous our existence on this planet really is. To put it into perspective, a recent NPR op ed piece by Robert Krulwich took at look at our distant pre-history, and how human beings almost vanished from Earth in 70,000 B.C.:
"...once in our history, the world-wide population of human beings skidded so sharply we were down to roughly a thousand reproductive adults. One study says we hit as low as 40 (breeding pairs)... (because) around 70,000 B.C., a volcano called Toba, on Sumatra, in Indonesia went off, blowing roughly 650 miles of vaporized rock into the air... That eruption dropped roughly six centimeters of ash — the layer can still be seen on land — over all of South Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian and South China Sea... With so much ash, dust and vapor in the air, [...] it's a safe guess that Toba 'dimmed the sun for six years, disrupted seasonal rains, choked off streams and scattered whole cubic miles of hot ash (imagine wading through a giant ashtray) across acres and acres of plants.' Berries, fruits, trees, African game became scarce; early humans, living in East Africa just across the Indian Ocean from Mount Toba, probably starved... keeping the small bands of humans small and hungry for hundreds, if not thousands of more years...
"So we almost vanished. But now we're back. It didn't happen right away. It took almost 200,000 years to reach our first billion (that was in 1804), but now we're on a fantastic growth spurt... October, 2011, we zipped past the 7 billion marker... But our looming weight makes us vulnerable, vulnerable to viruses that were once isolated deep in forests and mountains, but are now bumping into humans, vulnerable to climate change, vulnerable to armies fighting over scarce resources. The lesson of Toba the Supervolcano is that there is nothing inevitable about our domination of the world. With a little bad luck, we can go too..."
Moral of the story: Fate -- however you wish to rationalize it -- once handed the human race a dice roll that came up as Snake Eyes. Now that we've loaded the dice, we now run a much higher risk of rolling Boxcars. The eternal question beckons: What can we do before the dice next hit the table?
Updated: 2:43 AM GMT on October 31, 2012
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