Climate Science can Weather a Winter Storm

News of the Great Winter Storm of 2011 arrived a day early.

It was going to be bad, forecasters said. The entire Midwest and much of the Northeast was going to be hit with wind and snow, but the real story was Chicago.

Chicago was to be Ground Zero for the end of the world. Twenty inches of snow, 35-50-mile-per-hour winds, 30-foot waves coming off Lake Michigan onto Lake Shore Drive. A wind-chill of Don’t Ask.

Then the storm hit. For once in their lives, the forecasters were right–the snow, the wind, the waves, everything. Thousands of motorists were trapped in their cars on Lake Shore Drive, some of them for as long as eight hours.

Think about that. For a full 24 hours Chicagoans had been bombarded by warnings of the approaching Apocalypse. So what did they do? They jumped into their cars and headed for Lake Shore Drive. You have to reach back into the food chain as far back as lemmings to find anything as dumb as that. This is “the city that works”?

Chicagoans interviewed after their rescue from snow-entombed cars complained, of course.

“Why didn’t they tell us it was going to be dangerous?” “Why didn’t they close the road off?” “Why didn’t a friendly policeman arrest us when we tried to get on the road?”

I don’t know. Maybe the city gave its citizens credit for having half a brain. Maybe the police department was busy rescuing the sick and helpless–you know, people who really needed rescuing.

Or maybe the city bureaucracy was a little slow, like most city bureaucracies are. Whatever.

This much is clear. Chicagoans need help. The government should put out tips to help people get through the day. Things like: “Don’t text while driving your motorcycle through a carwash if you’ve had more than three drinks.” Or “Chicagoland: How to keep from burning yourself by not licking a hot frying pan.” Stuff like that.

The aftermath of the storm, which featured near-zero temperatures, brought out the usual gang of climate change deniers, cynics, and loony tunes.

“Where’s your global warming now, Mr. Smarty Pants?” they asked (or words to that effect).

Let me say this one more time: The weather outside your window isn’t a reliable indicator of whether the climate is changing. Neither is your backyard, your state, nor even your country.

In the case of the recent storm, it makes more sense to believe we’ve simply borrowed our cold weather from northern Canada and the Arctic, where it’s warmer than it should be. It has something to do with the jet stream. It might have something to do with climate change and it might not.

Yet there’s little doubt among mainstream climate scientists that the earth is getting warmer. Last year tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record. The first decade of the 21st century was the warmest in recorded history.

More ominously, the world is experiencing exactly the kind of massive droughts, floods, and storms that climate scientists predicted would result from global warming. Parts of Russia, Australia, China, Brazil, the American West, and Europe have all experienced recent droughts, even as other parts of those countries have seen floods.

Ten of our largest cities, including Los Angeles and Phoenix, are literally running out of water.

Scientists in Greenland have found evidence that glacial ice is melting far faster than predicted, raising the specter of a rise in sea levels that would inundate coastal areas worldwide over the next century.

Saying that it’s snowing outside is, in short, not a valid rebuttal to climate science.

The earth is getting warmer. You have to be as dumb as Rush Limbaugh to believe otherwise.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.otherwords.org