Prose & Comments: Blowing in the wind?


All around the country, around the world, and even here on Shelter Island, almost everyone agrees that the weather has certainly been unusual, to say the least. They often ask: What’s going on? Is it global warming? Climate change?

To attempt to get some sort of understanding, it’s important to consider some of the complex theories and research, and last but not least, the very basic science and physics behind it all.

But first, reflect on our weather. Remember last winter (2010-2011) and all that snow! This year, almost none; there isn’t even any frost in the ground, and it is projected to be the second warmest winter on record in Central Park. Two years ago, in the spring of 2010, there were days of torrential rains that caused record floods in certain areas of the Island.

Then there has also been tidal flooding along the causeway, now temporarily “resolved” after a major effort to raise the roadbed and repave that section. Don’t forget about Shell Beach either; repeated storms there caused significant damage and another major reconstruction project was necessary.

Now, go back a decade or so. How about those massive ice flows that challenged our local ferries? Ice boating and ice skating too are just distant memories. And less than a century ago, there was sufficient ice to permit horses and buggies to cross Long Island Sound to Connecticut. Again recall last winter and also the Halloween snowstorm last October that just missed us (yet set records from Maryland to Maine).

And in Europe and Russia, this winter has been so severe that it may set an all-time record there. How does anyone begin to truly comprehend such complex and contradictory events across the globe? How can we be experiencing what almost seems like the start of another ice age in one region and almost no winter at all some place else? And in that same year, there also exists extreme heat and drought. And even worse are the record numbers of tornadoes this winter in our central and southeastern states.

Much historic, as well as more recent scientific data, indicates some of the more significant factors at work. The Milankovitch Cycle indicates one pattern that is about 100,000 years in duration due to the slightly elliptical orbit of the earth and the influence of the other planets in our solar system; axial tilt and “wobble” are also cited as causes. Sunspots and volcanic activity have also affected the climate at times.

However, none of these seem to be able to adequately integrate all of these unusual events.

What may be happening is that our complex global climate feedback system is undergoing some major readjustments due to recent changes in the atmosphere (with a fair amount of uncertainty in regard to the exact details). We may be experiencing those interactions as they become incorporated into certain oceanic and atmospheric patterns. The jet stream and gulf stream are perhaps the most familiar of them.

Those two, and other similar systems, exist and function due to energy absorbed from the sun that has been trapped by certain greenhouse gasses normally in our atmosphere, which makes it possible for life as we know it. However, due in part to man’s activities, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of those gasses has been rising and, consequently, more of the sun’s energy is not only being trapped but also entering into some of those basic cycles that influence our weather.

A precise cause-and-effect connection is not possible at this stage of our understanding but a general connection seems justified. Basic science and laws of physics provide reasonable explanations at this level.

That additional energy does not nicely and uniformly make us a bit warmer but flares up in erratic fashion in those cycles, one interacting with the other, becoming more complex, less predictable and less stable: sometimes hotter, sometimes colder. Droughts and deluge may result as well. Even more serious is the potential to set off some self-perpetuating feedback loops that may not be possible to control, much less reverse. For example: the melting of Arctic ice exposes the underlying dark, heat-absorbing ground, which then results in the carbon dioxide and methane, once frozen in place, thawing and escaping into the atmosphere, adding to the other accumulating greenhouse gasses, thus trapping even more of the energy from the sun, and on and on it goes.

Now, again to the basic science and physics behind all this. It seems quite possible that due to that additional solar energy being trapped, the air, land and oceans are gradually warming, thus leading to changes in those cycles that influence our weather and possibly causing climate change as well.

So far, Shelter Island has been fortunate except in a few instances, although it appears that such unusual events may continue, affecting more of us in the future. However, for the most part, “business goes on as usual.” While something may truly be blowing in the wind … who is listening?

Herb Stelljes chairs the town’s Green Committee, which explores alternative energy and other “green” technologies.