Wednesday 10 February 2010

Climate, Weather, Hot, Cold, Wet and Dry.

The present is a tunnel between the past and the future. It might be more or less lit and we think we know our immediate direction and route. Otherwise what is going on outside is beyond our most frantic efforts. Moreover, the carriage is full of people who think they know and are shouting their opinions as loudly as they can. The great majority will turn out to be hopelessly wrong.

The future is something we do not know. Unluckily very many of those shouting the loudest think they do. They base their thinking on perhaps vague opinions, gossip of either higher or lower order, information from more or less reliable expert sources, ideas and ideologies they subscribe to, organisations they are members of or are employed by, even worse what they would like the future to be, worse still to exercise authority in science, learning, or what, and worst of all politicians in association with commercial entities looking to improve their poll ratings and earnings ratios and to increase their powers.

This is where we are at in the current debate on the future of the climate of our planet. The planet, however, may have its own ideas and will not communicate them but its working will give signals to those capable of interpreting them. There are few able to do so because the planet is a highly complex system many of whose secrets and ways of reacting are still either little understood or even unknown. It is only very recently that humans have probed the deepest waters and begun to learn what is there and what its potentialities are. We are still mystified by the implications of much of what goes on in geophysics.

This is why there is a great deal of effort devoted to examining the recent and the distant past. In the last half century many branches of science have had leaps of understanding due to new scientific and analytical techniques. There are too many to list. Working my way through the web and looking at even the most banal documentaries on TV tells me that the past I was taught and how the past is seen now has changed radically and is undergoing continuing reassessment. As so much of the climate debate turns on what is thought to be experience of the past, if the past itself is under scrutiny and perceptions alter, even that needs great care in interpretation and even greater in use for attempting forecasts.

We do know that in the Atlantic Isles there was a time when it was tropical and the flora and fauna very different. One of these times was when the deposits were laid down that became the coal we have plundered so much of to build our current vision of humanity in association with oils also relics of a past era of the planet. Along with the debate on climate we are now debating if and when “peak oil” is reached. Another debate is over the whole nature of the primary extractive industries. Is it simply a question of how much there is of it and where or is the critical issue the marginal cost of extraction? Did the Romans fail to take advantage of coal because it cost just too much in terms of their economic structure to extract and transport?

There have been changes even more recently. There are Bronze Iron Age remains below the waters of The Solent. The Atlantic Isles were once part of the mainland of Europe before the Dogger Bank was flooded and the Channel breached since the recent Ice Age. What shifts occurred before our recorded history? Why did the green Sahara become a desert? Did radical earth events in the Mediterranean have wider effects? Then there were the 6th Century events. There was the Medieval Warm Age, the Little Ice Age more recently and comings and goings in the general weather. At present there seems to have been a shift in the Jet Stream and the North Atlantic Oscillation has merged with the West Newfoundland Current as well as the effects of an El Nino. What comes next year is open to debate.

We have the horde heading in the direction of Global Warming and there does appear to be a lot of evidence in its favour. There are dissenters, candidates for the academic and political stake, claiming that Global Cooling is an equal or better prospect and they have a lot of cogent evidence as well. Much of it is the same if you believe that a period of warming is necessary to create conditions for a catastrophic cooling. If we have difficulty working out how to deal with hurricanes, a common and relatively predictable phenomenon, then we have problems. As with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, photo above, courtesy of one of the family who was there.

There are those in between who have an innate distrust of experts and propagandists trying to work out their own ideas. Then there are the majority who do not know and care only if it impacts on their own convenience or on the lifestyle and consumption patterns they have been instructed to obey according to their defined market segment. Meanwhile I am looking out of the window at a bright sun looking down at the snow left by a fall of a few minutes ago and about to check out the forecasts for Saturday to see if the trains will be running.

That is the only certainty in life, if the weather becomes quite hot, quite cold or quite wet, the trains will stop.

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