Climate Change Sirens

I’m still reeling about our climate crisis/ emergency. We hear the urgency confirmed over and again by experts. Threats imagined far over the horizon that we thought we’d never see in our lifetime are now in plain sight (fires, inundations, etc.). This is probably the biggest shock in my life, and certainly the most momentous.

I am grappling for metaphors of how this makes me feel. I have an old memory of a day walking on the ‘downs,’ the rolling grassy hills in southern England. I headed toward a thin blue-gray line of English Channel on the horizon. The coast was far off but after an hour I had drawn close enough to see choppy waves and white caps. I was eager to watch the tide rolling over the beach and sanderlings snatching a landed morsel by pattering bravely ahead of its foamy front. Still striding on I didn’t realize I was getting close to the cliff edge. There were no cues. I stepped back with a deep breath when I almost stumbled on the precipice and giddily gazed down 300- sheer feet of crumbling white chalk.

Cliffs at English Channel
Seven Sisters, East Sussex

Likewise, I feel panic about global warming, although my metaphor fails to account for how we can’t step back to resume life as usual, forgetting the brink, as I did after heading back from the downs.

I am now casting around for other memories. When did I become conscious of climate change, and when was I persuaded it was anthropogenic? I ask because people draw a line in the sand at different dates, and some still refuse to. If climate denial is a symptom of a ‘post-truth’ society, it is ironic because science marches with ever greater confidence.

When I checked the history of the greenhouse effect, I found it was known in the Victorian age. Later in the century the Swedish scientist Arrhenius (vaguely remembered from school chemistry) estimated a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would increase average global temperatures by 5°C, not a bad estimate considering the primordial state of atmospheric science. Some 30 years later, a British scientist celebrated the prospect of warming by CO2 emissions because that would improve the dreary national climate! Smog was the greater concern then, although it is evanescent compared to greenhouse gasses.

The winter of 1962-63 was so severe my igloo in our London garden didn’t melt for six weeks. No subsequent year has been so relentlessly cold. In the 1970s there was talk of planetary cooling and a new Ice Age. No more! It was a statistical blip that briefly fooled us about rising trends, like losing sight of the sea for a moment after stumbling in a rabbit burrow on the downs.

By the 1980s there was serious talk about global warming, and I became a believer. I even published my convictions in a Church of Scotland magazine in 1989, the year before the first report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. My only satisfaction was the invitation to speak at Women’s Guild meetings at which I showed a home-made model of the greenhouse effect. It was moving to meet  elderly women in the audience who worried about our human legacy for the planet; they were streaks ahead of their clergy. I can’t boast of being a pioneering activist because my lifestyle hardly changed. I thought there was plenty of time for society to adjust to a warmer world. No more!

Al Gore did a wonderful service with An Inconvenient Truth. As atmospheric science hardens, most projections in the 2006 film have been confirmed, except the timescale was not pessimistic enough. Probes to measure gases in polar ice recording the fossil atmosphere and in mud cores of ancient lakes to identify prehistoric tree pollen reveal the climate has occasionally changed abruptly in geological history. Instead of centuries or millennia, it can flip from one equilibrium state to another in a matter of decades. This is a tipping point, like a cliff that looks solid one day but tumbles into the sea the next, treacherous to the unwary stroller who thinks the edge is stable and still some way off, until he steps into air.

Next post: Where have all the birds gone?

Coping with grief from climate change

Someone I know is undertaking professional training to counsel people about climate change resilience. People who lose someone or something they love to hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophes should be offered counselling, of course, and this need is likely to grow as the climate becomes more extreme, which in this area is a threat of more flooding. But I wonder if the counsellor I know will be called on for the psychological effects of climate news and forecasts by people who take warnings deadly seriously even if they have never been personally impacted. I call this climate anxiety.

In a BBC interview this week, David Attenborough said, “the moment of crisis has come …we can no longer prevaricate … we have to change.” He meant carbon emissions, of course. As a much-respected public communicator and naturalist his warning is stark and alarming.

Young people and those yet unborn will live to see the greatest impacts. Symptoms of depression are already on the rise among teenagers (1 in 5 girls in the U.S. in 2017), mostly attributed to online activity and social media, but the statistics are likely to be compounded by apprehensions about how their world is becoming impoverished by climate change as opportunities for concerted political and economic adaptations slip past unclaimed.

“Where there is no vision the people perish.”

Girl grieving on dock
Time to grieve about climate change (Pixabay)

Climate anxiety bears comparison with symptoms of grief when we lose a loved one. Psychologists have divided the familiar kind of grief into five stages, which can be fitted to emotions generated by cares for our beautiful Earth home: 1. DENIAL (weather was never constant and we are currently in a warm phase of a natural cycle). 2. ANGER (climate change is unfair because I haven’t lived long enough to enjoy a prosperous life like the lucky Boomers). 3. BARGAINING (I try to avoid air-travel and buying some foreign goods because doing my bit makes me feel better). 4. DEPRESSION (Every newscast makes me feel more awful and I have nightmares about landscapes changing and species going extinct that rob the joy of living). 5. ACCEPTANCE (OK. I understand large parts of the living planet will die and we won’t halt the process, so I will struggle to make the best of my life).

I admit feeling some of those emotions on different days. I tried consoling myself that “nothing stays, all changes” (Virginia Woolf), considering the five great extinctions before the Anthropocene, and each time evolution roared back with more wonderful living forms. It didn’t work. Perhaps in some far, far off era new creatures will replace those lost, and if humans disappear maybe the next apex species won’t terrorize the earth or will be too dim to invent destructive technologies. But hope doesn’t reach so far ahead.  Coping with environmental grief is is a huge challenge to find personal peace and offer something positive for the spirit of younger generations.

Next post: Vanishing honeybee colony

Citizen Science

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg, Virginia

At one time all scientists were amateurs. Most were gentlemen with private incomes like Charles Darwin or clergymen like the Rev. Gilbert White whose church stipend enabled him to spend spare time rambling in the Hampshire countryside. There was a rich crop of these men too among the founding fathers of America: Benjamin Franklin discovered electrical activity in thunderstorms by flying a kite, and Thomas Jefferson created an almanac by recording the weather for nearly fifty years. Today we call them citizen scientists, and after science became a paid profession they continue to flourish where many eyes are needed for collecting “big data.”

One of those sciences is astronomy, which was so memorably presented on BBC TV by Patrick Moore (1923-2012), and for which other amateurs are credited with discovering new exoplanets. Another is ornithology because birders supply tons of data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and the British Trust for Ornithology. And the third—ever since Jefferson—is meteorology.

Years of recording temperatures and rainfall at Monticello helped him to plan the dates for planting crops in his garden. The data were also useful in the patriotic cause of proving the superiority of the Virginia climate compared to Paris where he lived at one time (there was no contest with London weather). In those times climate was thought to be fixed at a given place, just as the continents were believed to be immovable and species immutable.

Mark Twain wrote, Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get. But today the opposite is true because we no longer know what the future climate holds, and we have a firm expectation that weather will always be capricious. More than ever, climate scientists and weathermen/women depend on data from volunteers for modeling the atmosphere for days or even decades ahead.

Jefferson would have drooled at the equipment that is now available to backyard meteorologists. A starter weather station includes a thermometer, barometer, anemometer, hygrometer, and wind vane, but some really sophisticated equipment is affordable. The data can be uploaded to networks like Weather Underground which has more than 32,000 active stations worldwide. All data points are valuable because weather is local, and they contribute to a growing understanding of climate change.

rain gauge
Rain gauge for citizen scientists

You can join a network for the cost of a customized rain/ hail/ snow gauge ($30). This isn’t glamorous science like measuring glacier retreat, Arctic sea ice, or even sea levels and temperature, but data from your own backyard will be pooled with thousands of other observations for professional analysis.

Naturalists contribute data from monitoring wildlife and flora, which is called phenology. We are warned that if a warming trend continues the return dates of birds and butterflies that winter in warmer climes will be earlier, and they will breed further north. Hummingbirds arrived in Williamsburg today (April 12), but future generations may see them in March or even staying the year round.

Budburst is a phenology project for volunteers to record when trees and plants flower. A pollination by beesYoshino cherry tree in our yard bloomed the very same days this year as last, but we can’t assume the same in the future because this species is highly sensitive to temperature. Researchers in Seattle predict that cherry blossom will reach its peak 5-13 days earlier in Washington DC by 2050 than today (estimates vary depending on carbon emissions). If so, the National Cherry Blossom Festival and Parade will have to move forward to March.

It’s hard to say whether natural signs or physical measurements are the more reliable guides to the climate, but temperature and rainfall have the longest records.  The first frost dates in fall have been recorded in Williamsburg for over a century. Lately they have been getting later, and the growing season of frost-free days between spring and fall is correspondingly longer. The number of days when temperatures fell below freezing have declined by 20 days over the same period (notwithstanding the recent cold winter), which harmonizes with old stories when people drove across the frozen York River and skated on ponds.

first freeze
Date of first frost in Williamsburg, VA

It seems a contradiction then that average temperatures here in the hottest month of the year (July) are unchanged since records began in 1895 (78°F/ 25.5°C). Summer temperatures in Monticello (100 miles west) have also remained the same as when Jefferson recorded them, and it’s much the same story for rainfall. This leads people to wonder if the climate is really changing.

Jefferson as weatherman
Average annual temperatures in Virginia

But note the huge variances in the data. Our rainfall in July, which averaged 5 inches over the past 120 years, has a range of between 1 and 13 inches. You need data over a long period to prove a consistent trend in average temperature and rainfall with this statistical noise. But there have been more exceptionally hot days in summer here as elsewhere, and this may be the warning signal. We are so accustomed to paying attention to averages and medians (50 percentiles) that we can overlook the significance of outliers. I was reminded after an old cabin was taken down recently in the Allegheny Mountains when I was shown where the builder had scrawled in the joint between logs: June 6th 1878 frost killed beans.

Allegheny Mountains cabin
Frost killed beans 1878

Farmers and gardeners have always dreaded late freezes and heat waves, but if the climate becomes more dominated by freak weather we too will have something to groan about, and much more than scant snow on the piste or scorching sun on the barbecue. Amateur scientists today stand in a long tradition, but they are a different bunch to the gentlemen of yore who were led by private curiosity into the field. Today’s efforts by legions of volunteers are often propelled by a hope that through understanding nature we can better preserve it.

Next Post: Fertility Preservation