CLIMATE CREEP


The other morning, after the Eagle Creek Fire had burned through much of the Columbia Gorge on the Oregon side, putting eastern Portland in jeopardy, the morning paper had several interesting comments in one article:

  • “… the smoke output in the western part of the state is massive.”
  • “The number of active fires in so many parts of this state is pretty unusual.”
  • “It’s kind of unusual to have this high-pressure system this late in the summer.”
  • “Such high pressure systems occur a few times each summer in Oregon, but they typically don’t last this long.”
  • “It just so happens that we have this pattern and we also have all these forest fires going.”
  • “The marine air (has)…been having trouble kicking in.”
  • “I’ve been here 30 years and never once has there been a fire anywhere near here.”

From some of the people I know:

  • “I’ve NEVER seen the smoke so bad.”
  • “We’ve never had fires around us like this.”
  • “We always got some rain during the summer but not this year.”

The natural events that produced these are what I call “climate creep,” and the statements I call  “climate speak.” Here are some others: “It never used to be like this,” “we’ve never seen anything like this before,” “it’s coming a lot sooner now (spring) or a lot later now (winter),” “I don’t know what to expect any more.”  It’s not that every day is hotter than last year. They aren’t.  It’s not even the years are progressively hotter, although they are always above the defined average. It’s a sense that the climate in which we grew up has changed is no longer as predictable as it once was.

I think climate creep is why we are seeing so many significant events, yet almost all of them can be considered “normal,” inasmuch as they have occurred before.  Fact: for ten years in a row, extreme weather has cost the country more than $10 billion annually. This cost has been a significant increase since 2005.  Both hurricanes Harvey and Irma are in of themselves not unheard of.  We’ve seen stronger hurricanes.  Two in two weeks seems odd, although that can be explained, too.  Three five hundred year floods in Houston in three years seems a lot more than “odd.”  A lot of the impact is because of how cities are built, and Houston was not built to handle large amounts of rain.  “Anomalously” strong high or low pressure systems are not uncommon. We now have more people affected by extreme events, no longer a few thousand, which I call a 3rd magnitude event, or even ten thousand, a 4th magnitude event.

Climate creep is our becoming so used to warm weather that normal temperatures—or what used to be normal temperatures—now seem cold.  It is becoming so used to dry weather—at least where I have lived the past twenty-five years— that normal rainfall or snowfall has become “really wet,” when in fact our “wet rainy season” last year was still a little drier than normal, whatever normal is.  Those last three words are climate speak.

Climate creep is made easier to accept in that we are brought up to believe that sunny days are fair and rainy days foul.  Deteriorating weather is used by meteorologists to mean rain; improving weather sunshine.  A few degrees of warming are more likely to be tolerated and enjoyed than the same amount of cooling.  During Oregon’s extremely warm winter of 2014-2015, I was asked by a friend how I liked the “spectacular weather.”  I didn’t.  During the following summer of dust and fire, which I knew was coming, I liked it a lot less.  In the current season of multiple fires, a TV meteorologist referred to a prediction of little rain on the weekend as “hopefully, it won’t affect the football game”.

Climate change isn’t exactly linear. It creeps, slowly.  We aren’t going to wake up one day to discover it is hot.  I think while possible that a large non-linear change may occur, I’m betting the changes will continue to be subtle, and we are good at adapting to subtle changes in our life, be it smog, traffic, weighing a few more pounds, or temperatures that aren’t what they used to be.

Climate creep is periodically punctuated by 5th or 6th magnitude climate events, affecting 100,000 and a million respectively. The unprecedented smoke here was a 5th magnitude event,  Hurricane Harvey 6th magnitude, Hurricane Irma and California’s mega-drought, in some places worse than in the past 800 years, 7th magnitude, affecting more than ten million people. None of these proves climate change, but I think we will look back in 10-20 years upon these events and realize the concatenation of all were the vanguard of what was coming. The 9.8 magnitude event, affecting everybody, may not be a storm. It may simply be called 2050. Or 2080.

Climate creep is increased variability in the climate system.  An average may or may not change, but the values are more extreme on either side.  A place can flood, later dry out and have extreme wildfires.  The average is normal, but the variability is more extreme than it once was.  It should be noted that when physical systems fail to operate well, one of the first signs is often increased variability without a change in the mean.  We are seeing more 6th and 7th magnitude climate events.  It’s also the fact that annual global temperatures are not falling, and in my life I hear more and more climate speak:  “we used to get more rain,” “we always used to say summer started after the Fourth of July,” “I’ve never seen so much smoke,” “We’ve never seen so many fires at once.”

I think it only fair I make verifiable predictions: (1) Global temperatures will continue to trend upwards, and locally I will never again experience a year with below normal temperatures. (2) The cost of severe weather in the US will continue to exceed $10 billion every year. (3) The number of discrete annual billion dollar events will be at least 6 (the long term average is 5.5, in the past five years 10.2, and 9 so far in 2017).  (4) Ocean rise will continue unabated or increase.

I hope I’m wrong.  In the meantime, I hope we begin addressing issues where people are allowed to live and be allowed to rebuild with taxpayer money, especially on the coast, floodplains, and urban-wildland interfaces. I ask how we will tolerate, safely, “climate creep”: the high magnitude climate events of heat, cold, water, wind, and fire.

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