Breckenridge: Professor discusses ‘Wacky Weather’
January 16, 2013
Breckenridge is more than halfway through the 24th annual Glen Gerberg Weather and Climate Summit, where experts from around the country have gathered to discuss current events and high-importance topics related to weather.
Jennifer Francis, a professor at Rutgers University, gave a talk entitled “Wacky Weather and the Disappearing Arctic Sea Ice: Are They Connected?” on Wednesday. Francis used charts, graphs and other tools to discuss the effect that the ice melting in the Arctic has on the atmosphere, weather and climate of the rest of the globe.
Francis started by showing how the ice in the Arctic has changed over the past several decades, namely in the older, thicker ice melting and being replaced with new, thinner ice. The consequence of this, she said, can be seen in storms.
“The ice edge as it moves northward is a discontinuity in the surface,” Francis said. “Storms like to ride along discontinuous temperature areas.”
According to Francis’ research, the amount of sea ice being lost this year is incredibly high compared to any years past, which she calls a “stunning example” of how the climate is changing.
“It’s happening now,” she said. “It’s not happening generations from now.”
“I think we can all agree that in the last few years, Mother Nature has dished up an incredible smorgasbord of extreme weather, and we’ve seen all sorts of extreme weather coming up,” Francis said in her introduction.
She started by listing extreme weather events that have been recorded around the globe in the past year. Flooding occurred in Italy, the U.K., China and Alaska, among others. Vermont dealt with Hurricane Irene and Greenland had more melting damage than usual over the summer. Europe, Russia and China all had blizzards and deeply cold winters.
“Last winter, southeast Alaska had the most snow they’ve ever had, and that’s saying something for Alaska,” Francis said.
She also mentioned heat waves and drought in the summer throughout Europe, Russia and the U.S.
“The list is just mindboggling,” she said.
Francis then tackled the question as to whether humans were having an effect on climate change and the extreme weather situations. Her answer? Yes, and “the evidence is really starting to pile up.”
“I think climate change is playing a very huge role, and that’s what I want to talk about today,” she said.
According to Francis, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased rapidly. Temperature has not responded immediately, but that is because that kind of global process takes a while.
“What this means is … we have a long way to go in terms of warming and the impacts of this high carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Francis explained. “And we know that the reason why the carbon dioxide is so high in the atmosphere is that humans have put it there. And it’s not slowing down.”
Francis demonstrated tools that people like her use to gather their data and information, particularly a computer program called a global climate model. It uses math and physics to simulate processes that happen in the atmosphere, and effects on ocean, snow, ice and other climate systems.
One of the effects of increased carbon dioxide is an increased moisture level in the atmosphere.
“Moisture is fuel for storms, and extra moisture in the atmosphere provides more moisture for precipitation,” Francis said. “We also know that the effects of that moisture in the atmosphere are not uniformly felt around the globe.”
Essentially, wet areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier. The changing climate is causing extremes.
Francis used a deck of cards to illustrate her point. She took out the three of clubs and two of diamonds and replaced them with an extra king of hearts and ace of spades.
“This is the deck that Mother Nature’s playing with now,” she said. “The chances of getting high cards is higher.”
This doesn’t mean every hand is a good hand, however. This is merely increasing the probability of getting extreme events.
The problem with the ice melting in the Arctic, Francis continued, is that there is no longer that reflective surface. Usually, the bright ice reflects the heat right back into space. But now, with less ice, the heat is going right into the water, where it is absorbed and the entire ocean warms. When fall comes around, that heat is expressed back into the atmosphere in various forms including vapor and infrared. It’s all re-transmitted into the atmosphere.
The amount of heat absorbed in the Arctic in areas where ice was lost this summer “is about enough energy to power the entire United States for about 25 years,” Francis said. “That’s a lot of energy.”
The increased warmth at the Northern Hemisphere begins to affect the jet stream, and changes the weather all around the globe. Francis believes that Hurricane Sandy may have been a result of these changing weather patterns.
“As the ocean warms, the hurricane seasons may lengthen so we might see more storms like Sandy forming later in the season, and the warming oceans may allow these storms to track farther northward,” she said.
Francis concluded her discussion with an emphasis on how the weather is changing in the present.
“In summary, I would say that our deck of cards has clearly changed,” she said. “CO2 levels are higher than they’ve been in many many thousands of years. We have a warmer world, we have a more moist atmosphere, any weather patterns we have now is forming in a different state. … We know weather of all extreme types are increasing.
“Mother Nature will always throw us some curveballs,” she continued, “and I think we should be ready for those.”