I have to admit that I’m a little unnerved when it comes to our weather. As a fan of meteorology, I’ve been paying attention since I was a kid. I have noticed a trend toward wild weather patterns since the late 90’s.
Since then, things in my area (the Upper Midwest) have gone to extremes year after year: 500-year floods, then severe droughts; record snowfalls, then the next season virtually no snow at all.
We went from an extremely dry winter and spring (I didn’t shovel snow all season, and I live in Minnesota!) to record rainfalls in a matter of days. Now we’re in a drought once again. It just doesn’t seem right.
With tens of thousands of high temperature records broken weekly across America and over 60% of the country in a severe drought — I, like many, are wondering if much worse things are looming over the horizon. It’s beginning to feel like one of those dark apocalyptic movies. Except this time, it’s real.
I have no shame in admitting that I am scared for my children. Because if it’s this bad now, what will it be like in a few decades?
I was extremely lucky to have the honor of a chatting with John Abraham, one of the world’s foremost climatologists. In this, the first of three discussions, he gives insight into what’s happening to our weather, climate, and atmosphere. Beyond this discussion, we will talk about the potential climate problems brewing for the 21st Century, and some positive real-world solutions for climate change.
What I’m learning: there is hope, if we take this seriously right now.
At Coffee Bené in Saint Paul…
FutureDude: So, tell me a little about what you do?
John Abraham: I’m a professor of thermal sciences at the University of Saint Thomas, which is in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Much of my research is on clean and renewable energy especially for the developing and impoverished parts of the world. We want to bring them clean and reliable energy to create a positive impact on their lives.
I also do research on climate change both in education and via my own basic research. I‘m involved in oceanography. I’m working with a team who are trying to measure how much heat is going into the ocean. Because that can tell us where our environment is heading. So I do basic research and public education.
So you live and breathe science every day. Did you have any interest in the future when you were growing up?
The future is where our possibilities lie. The future presents opportunities as well as challenges. It challenges us today and it provides opportunities in the future. What can we do today to ensure that we have the greatest possibilities for ourselves and for coming generations, so that we can live fulfilled and happy lives in the future?
I firmly believe that the actions we take now will have direct consequences in the future. We can make things better or we can make things worse.
Some people believe in fate. Things are just going to happen. I don’t believe that. I believe that we make our own fate. And it’s the responsibility of a scientist to try to help us all understand how the things we do today impact where we’re going to go tomorrow.
Dr. Abraham works to bring clean and renewable energy to Africa.
Absolutely! I agree 100%. It’s of supreme importance how information is gathered and ultimately how it’s disseminated. I really see scientists as interpreters of the natural world. So, that said, there are a couple of major reasons why I wanted to talk with you.
Where are we right now? We are obviously living in some very extreme times when it comes to our atmosphere. Things seem downright volatile. I hear talk about the weather and I hear talk about the overall climate. It might be helpful to get a sense of the difference. Can you define that?
There is no strict distinction, but I’ll give you a working definition. ‘Weather’ is what you see on a day-to-day basis. You stick your head out the window and it’s hot and sunny. Maybe it’s humid. Maybe it’s dry. Maybe it’s snowy. We get weather patterns that last a few days or weeks.
‘Climate’ is different. Climate is long term trends in the weather over wide areas.
Minneapolis might be hotter or colder tomorrow or the next day. That’s weather. Climate asks a different question: what’s going to happen to weather over the Upper Midwest over the next 30 to 40 years? They are very different questions. But they’re related to each other. Climate is the background of weather.
We’re sitting here in July and we’ve just gone through an incredible heat wave in the United States; I think another one is coming in the next couple of days. That you can view as a pattern, but it’s set upon a warming climate. So, long term trends verses short term fluctuations.
Once of the confusing things is that, for weather, small differences don’t matter. If it’s 95 or 96 degrees Fahrenheit tomorrow, it’s not going to make that much of a difference. In fact, in Minnesota, we see temperatures go from below zero in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer.
But for climate, small changes matter. If we have a climate that changes by 8 or 9 degrees Fahrenheit that’s the difference between the weather we have now and ice sheets over Minneapolis throughout the year. Small temperature changes really matter from a climate standpoint.
So, the heat wave we just endured is a weather event that was driven by climate?
Exactly. I’ll use an analogy. Let’s say you go to an amusement park and you ride on a kid’s rollercoaster. It’s got ups and down but they aren’t very big. They’re sort of short and gentle. That’s a normal weather pattern. When climate change is happening, the ups and downs become much bigger. Your droughts become drier and longer. Heat waves become hotter and longer. Your precipitation is heavier.
We had a major, major flood in Duluth a few weeks ago that cost Minnesota $100 million. There may have been a flood without climate change, but it wouldn’t have been as likely and it wouldn’t have been as severe. So, the bottom line: climate change makes weather patterns unstable and more severe.
The flash floods that tore through Duluth, Minnesota, cost over $100 million in damages.
I observe the weather radar several times a day. I find weather intriguing. I have since I was a kid. I noticed a shift in the overall pattern over about a week and a half literally toward the Duluth area. They were inundated while, down in Indianapolis, my mother has had less than an inch of rain since May 1st.
Like I said, climate change affects weather patterns, but, how? One of the key areas is that, as the atmosphere warms, it does two things to water. First of all, it evaporates things faster, so if you have lakes they’ll evaporate faster in a warmer climate. If you have trees or plants they lose a tremendous amount of water through their leaves. It’s called ‘ evapotranspiration’. That happens faster in a warmer climate.
Yeah, try using that word at a cocktail party next Friday night.
That process tends to dry things out. And that makes sense if it gets hotter it gets drier. Another thing that climate change does is that since it causes increased evaporation, it puts more water in the air. It is more humid in July than it is in January. That’s because warmer air can hold more moisture. So, you are sucking water away from the ground and you’re sticking it in the air.
Now, that does two things. It dries out the ground, which promotes droughts. But, also, because you have more moisture in the air, it causes heavier downpours. Heavier precipitation.
So, these two things are happening with a warming climate. More severe droughts, but when rains occur you have much heavier downpours. And that’s exactly what we are seeing.
I’ve been noticing that. I had a recent drive across the country from Washington DC to Minnesota and I encountered a number of severe weather moments. Each time is was some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen. It was crazy. It’s like, when it rains, it REALLY, really rains!
In 2011, Texas had a severe drought and heat wave. It cost that state over $5 billion dollars. By the way, if people think there isn’t an economic cost to global warming, just take a look at Texas. Recently, they had tremendous downpours and flooding. Again, it’s these swings going from hot and dry to hot and wet.
It’s the rollercoaster analogy. You go up and down in wild swings, and we’re going to see more of that as the climate continues to warm.
The United States is experiencing its worst drought in 56 years.
So, tell us about what is causing this warming.
Well, we’ve known that for over a hundred and fifty years. Scientists discovered certain gases in the atmosphere that can warm the planet. They are water vapor and carbon dioxide. They are the two most important gases. Now, they aren’t present in large amounts. They’re just present in traces, but have a tremendous impact. We call these ‘greenhouse gases’.
Water vapor is the most important naturally–occurring gas, but carbon dioxide is the most important ‘human–emitted’ greenhouse gas. It’s the one we are primarily concerned about. As we add more carbon to the atmosphere, the world will continue to warm and we’ve started to see the impact.
So you’re saying that the increased heat is causing more evaporation and putting more water into the atmosphere, which is causing it to hold in more heat.
Exactly, think of it as a vicious cycle. As humans add more carbon dioxide, it warms the planet. But the warmer planet holds more water vapor, which warms the planet. It’s called a ‘feedback loop’.
If this effect didn’t exist, humans doubled carbon dioxide the temperature would only increase by about two degrees Fahrenheit, which is manageable and it wouldn’t really matter. But because of how the Earth reacts — evaporation and more water vapor — it’s going to be triple that.
So, its not even just about the human–emitted greenhouse gases, it’s the effect the human–emitted greenhouse gases have.
That’s right. I’ll give you another vicious cycle. As we warm the planet, the ice in the Arctic is going to melt. Now, ice is a thermostat.
It serves as a reflector.
Right, that helps to keep the Earth cool. But, once that ice melts, it’s going to expose dark water. That will absorb solar energy. That will heat things up and melt more ice. This is another example of a feedback loop.
Another thing we’re concerned about is methane, which is a HUGE greenhouse gas. Each molecule is worth 20 to 25 molecules of carbon dioxide. We’re fortunate that there is very little methane in the atmosphere. But there’s a lot of it stored in what’s called ‘permafrost’.
Sure, you’re talking about the ancient frozen marshes in northern Canada and Russia. If those thaw, it could be bad news. I’ve seen images of gases literally bubbling out of the ground in Siberia in recent years.
Yes. If that methane gets released in a large mass, it will dwarf all human emissions. That’s called the ‘tipping point’.
I think what’s been missing from this discussion is that many feel like humans are being blamed for ALL aspects of climate change. The implication is that driving your car is totally to blame, but what you are saying is that our actions are a trigger for these feedback loops and tipping points. Am I making sense?
You are making sense. You’re exactly right. If we continue on the path we are going, our actions will cause things to happen in nature that will take it out of our hands. But the nice thing is that we can avoid these tipping points. If we take action, we can actually lower the risk or these tipping points like methane.
It’s not hard to do something about it. For example, 20% of these emissions are due to deforestation. We can stop that. We know how to plant trees! It’s not rocket science. We don’t need cold fusion to get on a path to more efficient energy usage.
It’s never too late to take action. We can always have a positive impact. The earlier we take action, the easier and cheaper it will be. Jim Hansen of NASA testified about this to Congress back in 1988 and implored them to take action on emissions. Could you imagine where we would be in this challenge if we had started dealing with this problem back then?
Wildfires in the US match projections by the United Nations about global warming’s impact.
The sad thing is seeing an issue, that really impacts all of us — no matter where we live or what we believe — politicized by so many sides. It’s important that we get serious about solutions.
I think climate change is an opportunity that could really change the way we live in positive way, if we take it on.
So, what got you into science?
To be honest, I can’t remember. I’m really not a tinkerer. But, I want to know how things work. I want to understand the world around me, and science and mathematics are tools to do that. I want to understand nature and the world from a fundamental level. Not a superficial way.
I got into climatology because there weren’t enough scientists doing it. We need voices out there that can talk about these issues in a compelling and accurate way.
The public is hungry for knowledge and they know that we have a problem. But we can solve it. As a scientist, my obligation is not to say how we can solve it, but to give as much information as I can so that a good solution can be found. If we can shift the conversation from “Is there a problem?” to “What should we do about it?” that would be a tremendous step forward.
John and I discuss potential issues and timelines as our climate continues to shift. I ask him to help define what our weather future looks like, if we continue on our current course. Based on current trends, it isn’t pretty. But, as John says, there’s hope if we act now.