Heat wave strikes the Arctic, and the climate enters the Twilight Zone

Jerry Adler
Senior Editor
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Arnaud Bertrande/Getty Images, CBS, Getty Images.

We pause now in our ongoing coverage of the end of Western democracy for a brief consideration of the end of the world. Along with Robert Frost, we can say that the question of fire versus ice as the agent of destruction has been settled in favor of fire, and we even know where the fire is likely to start: above the Arctic Circle, where an unprecedented heat wave has sent temperatures in the far north of Sweden as high as 86 F. The Washington Post’s climate writer, Jason Samenow,  recently reported that the temperature (calculated by extrapolation) in a part of northern Siberia reached 90 degrees earlier this month, 40 degrees above normal. “It is absolutely incredible and really one of the most intense heat events I’ve ever seen for so far north,” wrote meteorologist Nick Humphrey. And after years of increasingly hot, dry summers, the great forests in the far north, all around the globe, are starting to burn.

A forest fire, like virtually all fires, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating the greenhouse effect that drives global warming. This is especially true of wildfires at high latitudes, where trees grow back slowly, and where there are the additional risks of carbon-dense peat bogs drying and burning, and also of melting permafrost releasing huge quantities of methane. This illustrates one of the perverse facts about climate change, that almost all the feedback effects are positive (in the technical sense of self-reinforcing, not as in “good.”) As one example, global warming melts ice and snow cover, which tends to reflect the sun’s radiation out to space, while bare earth and seawater absorb it.

Higher temperatures also cause more evaporation, putting more water vapor into the atmosphere. Water vapor — “humidity” to those living in the rain forest, or commuting to work on the subway — doesn’t just make the air feel hotter; it’s a greenhouse gas all by itself, which is why the temperature drops more at night in New Mexico than it does in New Jersey. Some climatologists have hopefully suggested that more water vapor would increase cloud cover and mitigate warming (a negative feedback loop), but the most recent assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change suggests that the net effect of increased evaporation on temperature will be either neutral, or “positive” — i.e., worse.

Almost the entire Northern Hemisphere has been hotter than normal this summer; Denver hit an all-time high of 105 in June, around the same time that Oman reported the highest nighttime low temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world, 109. As I write this, at 10 a.m. Sunday in the East, it is 79 degrees in Austin, Texas, with a forecast high of 105, going up to 108 on Monday. It was so hot there last week that the Austin Fire Department responded to a blaze caused by the spontaneous combustion of tortilla chips (technically, the crumbs and waste from a chip factory that had been left outdoors in the sun). A heat wave in Japan last week put 10,000 people in the hospital; at least 30 died.

It is a convention of the media that any article about heat waves (or forest fires, droughts or hurricanes) must be footnoted with the observation that no one weather event can be definitively attributed to climate change. That reflects both an appropriate caution on the part of scientists, and a preemptive rebuttal to climate-change deniers like Sen. James Inhofe, who a couple of years ago noticed that it was cold in February and sought to cast doubt on decades of climatology by bringing a snowball to the floor of the Senate. But that consensus is beginning to break down. The rule that where there’s smoke there’s fire, which political reporters have begun to apply metaphorically to evidence of Trump campaign collusion with Russia, should apply equally to science reporters covering actual fires.

Inhofe, a mentor to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, has come in for occasional ridicule for his belief that weather and the climate are entirely in God’s hands, absolving the coal and petroleum industries of responsibility. That is a fairly common belief among extreme conservatives. Of course, not all his Republican colleagues get their scientific information from the Bible. As reported in Climatewire, Scott Wagner, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, placed the blame squarely where it belongs, on human activity. Unlike most scientists, though, the activity he had in mind wasn’t burning fossil fuels, but, uh… procreation: “We have more people,” he mused at a panel discussion last year. “You know, humans have warm bodies. So is heat coming off?”

It’s true, an average person at rest generates as much heat as a 100-watt light bulb — which if you think about it, isn’t really that much. But human beings are fueled by food, which is to say, ultimately by sunlight, so their metabolism doesn’t actually contribute any net gain of heat to the atmosphere — it’s just moving calories around, from cropland to the places people live. If people walked instead of drove, they would generate (marginally) more body heat, but fewer greenhouse gases and less climate change. 

Wagner had another possible explanation. “I haven’t been in a science class in a long time, but the Earth moves closer to the sun every year — you know the rotation of the Earth,” Wagner said, at the same panel discussion at which he unveiled his theory that global warming is caused by an excess of people. “We’re moving closer to the sun.”

The Earth does move closer to the sun during the course of each year — and then further away for the next six months — but on average it isn’t noticeably closer than it was before scientists noticed that the climate was changing. Also, inconveniently for Wagner’s theory, July is actually when the Earth is farthest away from the sun. (To save him the trouble of going back to high school, the change in seasons is a factor of the way the Earth’s axis is tilted, not how far it is from the sun.)

“His comments were meant to illustrate that there are a lot of theories about what causes global warming,” his campaign manager told reporters. “Scott is running for governor, not to be a scientist, so he will leave it up to scientists to figure out what the cause of global warming is.”

But scientists actually have figured it out, and if politicians would just listen to them and act on that basis — as they are doing in the rest of the world — we could go a long way toward solving the problem. One Republican who understands that is Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, who is introducing a carbon-tax bill this week. Curbelo, not by coincidence, represents a district that stretches south from Miami to the Keys, an area that is considered vulnerable to both a Democratic wave in November and the kind of wave that comes from the ocean with rising sea levels. Curbelo is a co-founder of a bipartisan group called the Climate Solutions Caucus, which currently claims 43 Republicans; together with the entire Democratic caucus, that adds up to a majority of the House. But getting a proposal with “tax” in its name through Congress and signed by a president who is fond of boasting about how much he loves coal has (extrapolating to sometime in the not-too-distant future) a snowball’s chance at the North Pole.

As for Wagner, he didn’t say where he got his theory. Presumably it wasn’t in science class, but one possibility is this memorable episode of “The Twilight Zone” from 1961. As Rod Serling so presciently put it:

“The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in the Twilight Zone.”

We are there now.


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