This winter's weather broke or equaled snowfall and low temperature records across the United States, and led to epochal flooding in the United Kingdom where the government, working on the theory that climate change isn't happening, had over the previous 5 years cancelled 45 flood control projects. So what DID happen, and does the event qualify as a superstorm based on criteria outlined in Whitley Strieber and Art Bell's book Superstorm?
In popular media, the left assumes that global warming means a continuous increase in temperatures while the right believes that climate change isn;t happening at all. Both are incorrect. Climate change is well underway, and what happened this winter is an example of the kind of chaotic and extreme situation that can be expected to continue into the future. There has been much made of the fact that the polar vortex slipped southward, drawing arctic cold down across the United States. This caused extreme cold and snow over the eastern US and, as the storms crossed the Atlantic and were propelled out from under the polar vortex, extraordinary rains and flooding in the UK. At the same time, and most ominously, the jet stream slowed down. Meanwhile, in the western quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska to Mexico, record high temperatures and record-breaking drought prevailed.
While this was happening in the Northern Hemisphere, the Australian summer was marked by shattering heat, with 156 high temperature records being broken across that country. Despite this, the Australian government, also operating from the ideological position that climate change isn't happening, cancelled the budget of the Climate Council. A crowdsourcing effort is underway in Australia to keep the council budgeted so that it can continue its work of tracking the nation's ongoing climate upheaval.
So what is happening? Are the governments right to ignore climate change, or are they placing their populations in peril?
The short answer is that they are being extremely foolish, because both the left and right are wrong about what is happening, and the superstorm model is proving to be correct. What this model predicts is that weakening of the Gulf Stream will cause extremely cold arctic air to drop down over the Northern Hemisphere, resulting in events exactly like what happened this winter. And, in fact, over the past quarter century, this is exactly what has been happening. As Whitley Strieber has been saying since the publication of his environmental novel Nature's End in 1984, what is happening is in part consistent with a natural cycle and in part with rising atmospheric CO2 due to human activity.
Right now, there is more carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere than there has been in 800,000 years. So it's worth asking the question, what was climate like at that time? The short answer is that it was like it has been through most of Earth's history: much warmer than now. There were essentially no polar caps and the climate, in general, is much wetter than now because no water is trapped in glacial and polar ice. Sea levels run about 15 feet higher than they are now.
But the fact that CO2 levels are as high now as they were then doesn't mean that this is what's going to happen now. The reason is that, for the past two million years, including the time when CO2 levels were this high, Earth has been involved in a great climate cycle of alternating ice ages and warmer interglacials. The interglacials last 10,000 to 15,000 years, and we are at the end of one now. The paleoclimate record shows that the end of interglacials are characterized by precisely the sort of climate upheavals we are experiencing now, with violent seasonal alterations such as the ones we are seeing now.
For example, 2013-2014 has recorded historically cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere, while 2012 was the hottest year on record in the same region, characterized by drought and fires across the whole area.
This is entirely consistent with the end stage of an interglacial, and can be expected to continue until and if climate shifts into a period of glaciation. In fact, looking at a snow cover map of the Northern Hemisphere for the winter of 2013-2014 and a map of the extent of the Pleistocene glaciation, it's clear that the same area is receiving snow cover now that it did then.
An ice age begins when snow cover over the Northern Hemisphere isn't melted across a summer. This occurs when a low pressure area persists over the North Atlantic across a summer and the snow doesn't melt. This causes the albedo, or reflectivity, of the surface to increase, which radiates so much heat out into space that the next winter is even harsher, and the next summer even more snow fails to melt. This snow forms the foundation of a new glacier, which then develops relatively quickly. By the end of a century, billions of tons of water are trapped as ice, and a new ice age has begun, locking the planet into a cold weather regime for a hundred thousand years. If the low pressure area that appeared over the North Atlantic this winter were to persist across the summer, it would mean a much colder than expected summer and, if it was strong enough, could leave snow on the ground as far south as central Canada.
At present, this is unlikely. What is much more probable is that the colder water that this winter has generated in the North Atlantic will increase the temperature differential between that region of the ocean and the South Atlantic, causing the Gulf Stream to strengthen.
There is an external factor other than planetary climate that plays a role in the glacial cycle. Because of its relative consistency, this probably isn't a planetary orbital anomaly or something like our solar system passing through dust clouds that reduce solar radiance, but rather a large-scale solar cycle that has developed as the sun ages.
If such a cycle exists, then it could be that the Little Ice Age that persisted from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and now the unexpectedly quiet solar maximum, mark the beginning of another reduction in solar energy emissions. If so, then its likely that a glacial regime will eventually prevail again on Earth. In the meantime, we can expect continued and increasing weather extremes, and many unexpected effects.
The most dangerous of these is slowing of the jet stream, which draws its energy from the temperature difference between arctic and mid-latitude air masses. If this difference continues to decrease, the jet stream might stop altogether. This would cause almost immediate catastrophic failure of air circulation, with disastrous consequence for countries that have failed to control pollution, chief among them China.
In the future, we can expect continued and increasing extreme weather events, and many of them will have tragic consequences, obviously. What exactly will happen is unclear, but what is clear is that climate change is a real phenomenon, it is well underway, and the Superstorm Scenario did correctly predict its effects.