Robert Miller: A local look at climate change
Human beings are highly adept at dealing with the calamity at hand. When a fire ransacks a house, or when a storm drops tree limbs on power lines, we scramble to right the world.
But give us a brewing storm — at a distance, out on the horizon — and we procrastinate. We have time, we think: The storm will miss us. It won’t be as bad as some people say. Then, after it hits, we pick up the pieces again.
So it is with climate change and global warming.
“There are people who object to the whole topic,” said Mitch Wagener professor of biologic and environmental science at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. “There are people who are just tired of hearing about disasters.”
But there are people who are saying, ‘”We have to know this is coming and prepare for it.” A group that includes Wagener.
“It’s not climate change,” he said. “It’s everything change. It will mean changes in our economy, in agriculture, in where people live.”
Starting last week and continuing for the next four Wednesdays, Wagener will try to educate people on the subject in a series of talks entitled “Climate and Human Civilization.” The weekly talks will be held at 7 p.m. in the science building at the university’s Midtown campus. For more information, go to: http://www.wcsu.edu/newsevents/Climate-change-lectures.asp
The first lecture was a primer on how climate works and how global warming is changing it. Other talks will include topics as diverse as the United States’ 19th-century cotton industry and how that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, which, in turn, helped fuel climate change in the 21st century.
It will also include participation at each lecture by Western students. Last Wednesday Paul Taschereau, a junior studying meteorology, talked about the current El Nino — perhaps, the strongest on record — and how that affects weather everywhere.
Taschereau said he jumped at the chance to join the lecture series.
“Being a meteorologist, I love talking about the subject and sharing knowledge about it,” he said.
Likewise, senior biology student Karina Escobar said she was happy to be help Wagener.
“I definitely wanted to join this,” she said. “I know the urgency. I wanted to spread the word.”
One word that Wagener stressed at Wednesday’s lecture was consilience — a term for when many scientific disciplines collect data leading them to the same general conclusion. That’s what has happened with climate change, he said.
“It’s looking at air temperature, water temperature, sea ice, continental ice, permafrost,” Wagener said. “The work is being done sometimes by rival labs that would love to shoot each other down. But they all agree.”
Wagener also explained the difference between climate and weather. Weather can act chaotically and can be hard to predict, even in the short term, as anyone who goes out in the sun and comes home in the rain can attest to.
Climate, Wagener said, is the decades-long study of the factors that make up weather — temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, precipitation, wind.
“Climate is what you expect,” Wagener said. “Weather is what you get.”
That accumulation of data allows meteorologists and ecologists to talk about what’s happening with climate change. They can see a rapid rise in temperature that doesn’t correspond to the slow changes in climate that usually occur over eras and epochs.
There really is no debate about the reality of climate change, Wagener said. There are tenured professors at American universities who are skeptical about global warming, but they are outliers.
“There are fewer and fewer every year,” he said.
As for that storm being on the horizon, it’s already here. Climate scientists have predicted that because global warming loads the atmosphere with moisture, the storms we have will be more severe. There will also be longer, more severe droughts.
And while the cause of complicated weather systems like an El Nino still puzzle meteorologists, there is evidence that these Pacific Ocean events, which change weather globally, are becoming more severe and more frequent. That, Taschereau said, could be due to climate change as well.
Even locally, the changes are happening.
Larry Marsicano, executive director of the Candlewood Lake Authority, said the drought-and-deluge cycle will mean a lot of sudden run-off, eroding the land at lakeside. It also means the rain, instead of seeping into the ground, will carry more nutrients into the lake. That means more food for invasive species like Eurasian watermilfoil.
Marsicano, who will speak at the March 2 lecture at Western, said there is also a growing body of scientific evidence that global warming may be leading to a more stratified water column in lakes, with the deepest section of the column — where there is the least oxygen — staying in place longer.
That, in turn, may release nutrients in the lake to feed blue-green algae. And that may mean more persistent algae blooms in the future.
It may also mean changes in the basic way we live, Wagener said.
“It means driving smaller cars, having smaller homes, eating smaller meals, having smaller families,” Wagener said.
Because lots of beef cattle produce lots of methane, it may mean eating less beef. That, he said, hits home.
“No one loves beef more than me,” he said. “I love barbecue. But I’m starting to cut back.”
Contact Robert Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org