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Colder Winters Caused by a Warmer Planet

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"Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum."-- Kurt Vonnegut

Let's play a game -- it's called "How long can CNN talk about a freak wave of arctic weather across more than half the country without saying the words 'climate change?'" I watched for 30 minutes today without hearing one mention of it, but I'm not sure if that means I win or the rest of the world loses as we continue to neglect the one thing that may do us in before anything else.

Not Just a Fluke

As I write this, it's warmer in Siberia than it is in Chicago. It's warmer in Anchorage, Alaska, than in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixty-eight percent of the continental U.S. is covered by a wave of arctic temperatures that normally don't travel below Northern Canada. The official explanation for this is a bizarre "polar vortex" that's causing arctic temperatures to be pushed south.

The polar vortex is always present in the Arctic, but strengthens in the winter and grows weaker in the summer. The vortex itself is a natural occurrence, but occasionally the jet stream pushes it further south than normal. And as the arctic grows warmer at a rapid rate, cold snaps like the one sweeping half the country will become more frequent. The jet stream pushing the polar vortex south in the winter may be more than just a fluke if rapid climate change continues.

Rapid Arctic Ice Melts

Odd patterns from the jet stream were also responsible for the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan during its already wet monsoon season in 2010, displacing millions of people and requiring a massive global relief effort. That same year, the jet stream was also responsible for the unusually dry conditions in Russia that caused a swath of wildfires to erupt across the country prompting them to temporarily ban grain exports.

In this graphic, the left side shows wind patterns in the Russia/Pakistan area under normal jetstream conditions. From 1968 to 1996, these conditions remained largely the same. There's a polar jetstream on the northern side, and a tropical jetstream on the southern side. But in the 2010 graph, a very oddly strong polar wind blew north of Russia around Moscow, going directly south into Pakistan. So how did those jetstreams affect weather patterns?

The northern polar jetstream usually brings extratropical lows and cyclones that make up the bulk of the precipitation in that geographical region of the world, and serves as the boundary between cold northern air and hot southern air. When it went suddenly northward as in July of 2010, it left those exposed areas unusally hot and dry and prevented necessary rain, making the area ripe for conditions like the wildfires that ravaged the forests near Moscow. The right side of the graphic showing the 2010 jet stream illustrates what happened to the precipitation that missed Russia. After blowing far northward, the rains suddenly headed southward toward Pakistan, causing heavy rainfall and widespread flooding.

The extreme cold snap covering 68 percent of the country is a direct result of the rapid melting of arctic ice, making the jet stream more unpredictable. In 2012 alone, ice sheets larger than Canada and Texas combined melted, setting an all-time record for the fastest-melting polar ice in recorded history. Just in August of 2012, arctic ice melted at a rate of 35,400 miles per day. If this pattern continues, sea levels are expected to rise by 23 feet by 2020. And such a rapid change in sea levels will not only cause cities built at sea level, like Miami, to be completely uninhabitable, but will cause an exodus of millions of climate refugees from coastal cities all over the world. And freak weather events like Hurricane Sandy rocking New York City will happen even more frequently. If you think this current cold snap is bad, wait until it takes hold for an entire winter and happens every year.

The Wrong Way

Acknowledging climate change is real and threatening isn't a controversial issue. Even scientists funded by the Koch Brothers to refute the climate science making the case for man-made climate change admit that climate change is real, and that it has been accelerating since the industrial age. The science that showed carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere and channels heat has been around for centuries. The only people who disagree with the scientists studying the climate and telling us that we need to pay attention to climate change are the shills paid by the oil industry to spout nonsense on cable news channels (that depend on ad revenue from ExxonMobil). And 75 percent of Americans agree that climate change is real.

Unfortunately, our government seems to be heading in the opposite direction when it comes to climate policy. Like a true capitalist country, the U.S. government is seeking to help corporations enrich short-term profits rather than thinking about the long-term future of the next generations of citizens. Oil has already begun to flow through the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, the construction of which President Obama fast-tracked.

As investigative journalist Steve Horn has reported, tar sands oil continues to get dredged from Alberta, and trains carrying the toxic substance have been on an alarming path of derailment and explosion, harming the communities surrounding the rail lines. And the recent tar sands oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, was a sobering premonition of what would happen if the Keystone XL pipeline were built and ruptured near a crucial water source like the Ogallala Aquifer.

Economic Benefits of Tackling Climate Change

We of course need to be mindful of our economy in this era of high unemployment and record numbers of people living under or on the cusp of the federal poverty line. But the minor economic impact from a few hundred new pipeline construction jobs would be exponentially negated by all the economic damage from climate change-influenced weather events. Hurricane Sandy cost the NYC metro area $50 billion. The impacts from the cold snap enveloping half the continental U.S. are likely to be staggering, given all of the roads, schools, and businesses that have had to be shut down due to the blistering cold temperatures and wind chills.

But we can help our economy while also preserving our planet for future generations. By making massive investments in building a new sustainable energy grid across the country, we could create millions of new jobs in the construction, installation, transportation and maintenance of wind turbines, solar panels, and infrastructure to enable geothermal and biomass-based energy resources. The argument that we don't have the money is silly -- we've already spent $392 billion on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program that's still malfunctioning today. Discontinuing that project and investing in clean energy infrastructure could be the fix to unemployment and climate change that would benefit not just America, but the rest of the world as well. Wall Street is already betting big on renewables, projecting that 69 to 74 percent of new energy development through 2030 will be in green energy.

We need to get serious about addressing what we're doing to our climate in our reckless consumption of fossil fuels, or we'll have many more cold winters, hot summers, and climate-related weather disasters in our future. This cold snap is a harsh, constant lesson taught to us by our planet, and if we fail this test, the next one will be even harder.

This article originally appeared on Reader Supported News.

 
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