Still think the climate isn’t changing? Here’s one for the record books: an unusually fierce spring storm system on Tuesday brings record breaking blizzards to South Dakota, Nebraska, ice storms as far south as Oklahoma. Winter storm warnings stretched from Utah to Minnesota on Tuesday, said the Washington Post weather blog. NBC News reported temperature in Denver dropping 55 degrees in 24 hours. And:
On Tuesday, temperature differences across the Plains were more than 90 degrees. Highs ranged from 12 degrees in Cheyenne, Wyo., to 108 degrees in Laredo, Texas.
The culprit, AccuWeather.com explains, is an unusual blast of freezing Arctic air moving south, colliding with a low-pressure system moving eastward off the Rockies and a warm, moist air mass moving north from Texas. And this, dear readers, is almost exactly what caused Hurricane Sandy last fall to become the East Coast catastrophe it became.
The critical piece is that freezing Arctic air mass showing up where it doesn’t belong. You won’t be surprised to hear me suggest that it’s another nasty consequence of global warming. Here’s how it works:
Start with the Jet Stream, the belt of cold wind that circles the globe in a track roughly following the Arctic Circle. Lately, the warming of the Arctic Ocean and massive melting of its ice cap have the effect of warming the air above the Arctic. This disrupts the path of the Jet Stream, causing bulges of freezing air that move southward and bump into other weather systems.
Last fall, one of those bulges moved south over Greenland, where it collided with a hurricane system that was moving northward along the East Coast over the Atlantic, following the Gulf Stream. The collision caused the hurricane to take an unprecedented turn to the west, shoving it into the Staten Island-New Jersey coastline. The region wasn’t prepared for a direct hit like this because it had never happened before and wasn’t anticipated, since up to now — before the Arctic started melting — it had been theoretically almost impossible.
Compounding the damage, the hurricane’s new westward track caused it to collide with a warm air system moving eastward that stopped the hurricane’s westward movement and forced it to dump all its fury over that one stretch of New Jersey-New York-Connecticut coastline.
Right now, if I’m not mistaken, it looks like the same sort of southward bulge of freezing Jet Stream air is doing the same thing over the Plains — crashing with unexpected force into systems from the south and the west. The phenomenon of a spring storm like this over the Plains is not unprecedented, but this storm’s magnitude appears to be.
Conservatives say we can’t afford the projected cost of pursuing a serious, urgent alternative energy program to slow climate change. But as the costs of real-world changes in climate start piling up like this, the question that must be asked is whether we can afford not to.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).