Opinion » John Rember

An Excuse for Some Fart Jokes

Anthropogenic climate change explained


It's snowing today in Sawtooth Valley. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, it'll snow tomorrow and the day after that, and so on. The week's row of little weather icons shows snowflakes on a dark background for our nights, snowflakes on a light background for our days. Hope for sunshine this week rests with the usual NOAA inaccuracy when it comes to mountain weather. We find it a comfort that one of the meteorologists in the Pocatello NOAA office is named Hedges.

Before industrial civilization made climate into an object lesson in uncertainty, forecasters had names like Reginald McCertain, or Alistair Sureheart, names steady and British, names to sustain you through a long week of late-spring snow when all you yearned for was to go outside, sniff some flowers, and dig your toes in warm dirt. "Summer is Icumen In," McCertain once sang. Sureheart sang back, "Sing loudly, cuckoo!"

Together they chanted:

The seed is growing

The meadow is blooming

The wood is coming into leaf now

The ewe is bleating after her lamb

The cow is lowing after her calf

The bull is prancing

The billy-goat farting.

Sing well, cuckoo! Never stop now.

But as NOAA struggles to adapt to a climate that has lost all connection to centuries of weather records, official forecasts have ceased to resemble medieval English songs. Now, the agency that employs Hedges would fire McCertain and Sureheart for having inappropriate surnames. Hired to replace them would be Iphegenia "Iffy" Darkenstab.

Iffy would say there's an 85 percent chance of Summer Icumen In, at least by August, although given the probability of an El Nino-inspired drought, the meadow might not bloom at all and the leafy wood will have a 45 percent probability of being ash and fire-cracked rock when the first Fukushima-mutated snowflakes start Icumen In January.

I've been re-reading James Gleick's Chaos, a book that discusses the complexities of climate. He devotes a chapter to the Butterfly Effect--the idea that the miniscule compression of air under an Amazonian butterfly's wings can turn into a prom-wrecking Texas tornado a few days later. Scientifically, this is called a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions," meaning that in experiments as in life, atomic-level causes can have cosmic-level effects.

Gleick says the weather can never be predicted. If you put a sensor in the middle of every cubic foot of the earth's atmosphere, the data thus collected would be overwhelmed by conditions between the sensors within hours. In other words, if you want to know what the weather's up to, look out the damned window.

Gleick also brings up the idea of phase-changes, the sort of thing that happens when a solid changes into a liquid or a gas. You can warm H2O from minus 273 degrees Centigrade to zero and it's still going to be ice. Warm it another degree and you can pour it in a glass and drink it. Warm it another 100 degrees and you'll get a steam burn.

On a planet with weakness for phase-changes, this is serious stuff, because geological history tells us that we've gone back and forth across a multitude of climate tipping points. Extremes have ranged from an ice-covered Snowball Earth to the deadly seasonless heat of the Cretaceous. Even though our current 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere doesn't sound like much, it can be the flap of the butterfly's wing that puts us into a different climate. So can methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, and the chief component of animal farts.

To paraphrase Joseph Stalin, one human farting is a tragedy. Seven billion humans farting is a climate change statistic.

When I Google "Arctic Ice," the first website that comes up is Arctic Sea Ice and Analysis, which has kept track of the extent and volume of the Arctic ice cap since satellites made accurate measurements possible.

This year's data are contradictory. They indicate a build-up of multi-year ice just north of Canada. But they also reveal open water north of Russia and the second-to-lowest-ever total ice extent for this time of year. The volume of ice, seen as the most accurate indicator of what's happening, is declining at a rate that it will be gone sometime before 2020.

What this means for next week's Sawtooth Valley weather is anybody's guess. But over time, we can expect big things from the solar energy that will be absorbed by an open Arctic Ocean, including faster melting of Greenland glaciers, more extreme weather in the mid-latitudes (that's us) and increased atmospheric presence of the fossil methane (mammoth farts) buried in the tundra and frozen in the shallows off eastern Siberia.

Taken together this suggests that a couple of decades hence, we won't recognize the earth's climate. The joy with which medieval weather forecasters greeted the summer will be replaced by bewilderment as former weather constants swing from outlier to outlier.

I expect Hedges and the rest of his crew in Pocatello to come up with a series of new icons: a shrugging emoticon that means We Have No Idea, a cartoon of a grieving Bangladeshi refugee that means Another 50 Square Miles of Ganges Delta Have Become Indian Ocean, and a little cuckoo that means If You Can Look Out the Window and See One, They're Not All Extinct Yet.