15 February, 2014

CO2 Emissions are Drying Up California... for Now

UPDATE May 2014: There's also an El Niño brewing, which is indeed shaping up to become one of the strongest on record. Guess what? There's a bit of a connection between El Niño and melting Gulf of Alaska ice, isn't there?

Original post continues below.

The climate change debate is indeed a heated one, and I can assure you that I've met my fair share of denialists in the past. Let's get the facts straight, however: Sure, climate has had its ups and downs over the last 800,000 years, there's no doubt. Sure, the carbon dioxide levels in Earth's atmosphere have also fluctuated, and have always played a crucial role in that oscillation. Since, the 1800's, however, the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has grown to more than double its 800,000-year average. Just in the last 200 years alone, the total amount of CO2 that the industrial revolution has added to our atmosphere is just mind-blowing compared to what it would be naturally, and here's the statistics to prove it:

This is certainly not a natural phenomenon. Notice how the spike around 300,000 years ago happens to be the warmest period the Earth has seen on record, for as far as the ice cores tell us. The amount of anthropogenic CO2 that has been dumped into our atmosphere pushed the concentration of the underlying cause of our interglacial to a good 75 to 100 more parts per million than what it normally would be, and in that 300,000-year-old period that we just artificially one-upped, the Arctic Ocean was already nearly completely thawed out.

What's more alarming, though, are the results of our efforts. Right now, the polar jet stream -- the primary source of rain for California, where I'm at -- is not anywhere near us. Rather, it's bringing all the rain (and snow) to Alaska, which is usually what it does in the summer, not in the winter. The reason? Abnormally warm water in the North Pacific ocean, which results in the air also being warm, thus causing a persistent ridge of high pressure to form, ultimately resulting in the unthinkable: water-temperature feedback. Something that last year, after seeing these pictures of retreating Alaskan glaciers, courtesy of The Weather Channel, was something I was fearing was inevitably going to happen, sooner or later.

Why, you ask? The cold water off our coastlines is brought to us by the California Current. Normally, of course, it's freezing cold; often times surfers need wet suits even in the summer time! The California Current's only source of cold water, however, is -- you guessed it -- glacial meltwater from the Gulf of Alaska, which is carried southward by the CC into the North Pacific. Note how nearly all those pics provided by TWC that are from Alaska (and not Montana) are of glaciers in Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords national parks, the Chugach National Forest, and the St. Elias Mountains. Those are ALL locations that empty into the Gulf of Alaska! Which really spells trouble. Not just drought, but especially in the long run, a complete 180-degree twist of wet and dry seasons. Oh yeah, and it's not supposed to be 80+ degrees F in January/February, but thanks to this abnormal pattern, it certainly is.

Meanwhile, our folks on the East Coast are feeling the opposite: record cold. Now before you try and use this against me, remember this: The polar vortex is typically centered right over the North Pole. Not this time, however: It's fragmented. It's utterly disorganized. Instead of one strong polar vortex over the North Pole, there's a multitude of fragmented, weak polar vortices. Here's how it's normally supposed to look, from November 2013, the last time it looked that way:

And here's how it looked in January 2014:

Note the annotated portion of Map 2. The polar vortex seems to be disrupted by that one little spot right off the eastern Gulf of Alaska, precisely where all the glacial melt is occurring... and oh yeah, precisely the very source of cold water that the California Current depends on. In prior years, that region didn't stop it. Now, however, it seems to be doing a very good job of tearing apart the polar vortex and causing all sorts of extremes.

Well, let's get back to California. Sure, it may be dry now, but it's also winter time. We as Californians are surely used to dry weather, but seeing it at this time of year is worrisome to say the least. However, thanks to the fact that there isn't as much Pacific glacial melt from Alaska keeping the California Current cold as there used to be, the warm El Niño waters, rather than being forced to bore their way into the Equatorial Currents when attempting to flow eastward, are now slowly being given free-reign to simply move around the trade winds about 15 degrees to the north. That is exactly what's driving the jet stream northward and putting us in a drought now, to be sure, but in the summertime, a more direct influence that the abnormally warm water typically has on the air -- an increase in tropical humidity -- will have the opposite effect. To be precise, it can do either one of two things. First up: the monsoon.

The American monsoon pattern is infamous for the flash flooding and mudslide damage it causes in mountain and desert communities. What underlies it, however, is completely different from what underlies the Asian monsoon that makes India have such problems. In India's case, it's the Himalayas, which act as a sort of positive-feedback catalyst forcing winds to shift in one of two directions: toward them, or away from them. In the Americas, however, it's an area of low pressure caused not by high mountains but by desert heat.

See, during the summer time, the area around Death Valley -- notorious for its world-record high temperatures -- ends up getting so freakin' hot as to manipulate its own weather. Remember, Death Valley is an island of low desert - below sea level, in fact -- in a sea of high desert. The Mojave Desert and its kin may be hot, that's for sure... but being higher up, it doesn't get anywhere near as hot as Death Valley. This results in winds blowing toward Death Valley in a sort of counter-clockwise fashion, drawing in an atmospheric river from Mexico that ends up convecting and turning that weak low pressure area into a slightly stronger one.

In the case of warmer than normal Pacific waters resulting from the California Current's cold water source disappearing, however, that atmospheric river won't be coming from Mexico. Why? Because there would be warm tropical waters right off our coast for the thermal low to grab! So guess what: The normal sea breezes, rather than being cool and humid, end up becoming warm and humid, fueling the convection over the desert and turning the thermal low over the desert into a much more powerful thermal cyclone capable of completely drenching our area for several months straight. Speaking of cyclones, that's Scenario 2 for you.

Despite how rare they are, tropical storms -- including at least one hurricane and one disputedly borderline tropical storm/hurricane -- have in fact hit California before. If the California Current is robbed of its only cold water source -- again, southern Alaskan glaciers -- expect them to only increase in strength and number. Yes, it's dangerous, and it certainly is something that's not to be taken lightly either, which is what this blog post is for: letting people know what's happening.

See, the whole reason why tropical cyclones are rare in California to begin with is BECAUSE of the California Current, at least the way it is right now. The water is so cold off our coast because of it that it tends to act as a sort of buffer zone, shielding California from disaster. Without it, more tropical cyclones off Mexico would have free reign to veer north and hit us, and that's just what anthropogenic glacial melt is doing: robbing the California Current of its only cold water source, and that source is again the glaciers.

Let's hope people finally understand what's going on here, because unfortunately it may already be too late. Hopefully it isn't, but the weather patterns that we're seeing now that it's 2014 may in fact prove that this is the beginning of the end for California's current climate, and the beginning of one whose wet and dry seasons are literally the exact opposite of what they currently are. If it's not too late, then good, we have carbon emissions to cut, so let's cut them. Provided climate change denialists funded by the oil monopolies don't continue to disseminate lies that subvert the truth, we should easily be able to. If it is too late, however, then we'll just have to prepare...