Saturday, February 16, 2019

Vortex Redux

As the frenzy concerning the January stratospheric polar vortex abates, we could not resist treating the subject in at least one more post. The polar vortex has become a catch word and buzz phrase. One feels more meteorologically literate when this term rolls off the tongue during conversation. We do not intend to disparage the importance of an event having such a great negative impact on so many residents. In our area, the vortex was embedded in an unprecedented sequence of school cancellations (10) and late openings or early closings (7) since January 14. Only two of those cancelled days were directly related to the polar vortex. The remaining days were linked to an unusual stretch of dangerous icy and snowy conditions causing havoc with local educational continuity and athletic team schedules.

In an ironic twist, many climate change proponents claim that global warming phenomena are related to, and may contribute to climate disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, blizzards, and even the recent stratospheric polar vortex cold outbreak. Tropospheric polar vortexes are common and coincide with almost all winter weather in heavily populated mid-latitudes of Planet Earth. In our previous 2-7-19 post we distinguished between rare stratospheric and common tropospheric vortexes:

Today’s societal frenzy over climate change connects with the recent embrace of the “Green New Deal” promoted by many politicians with future presidential ambitions. On the assumption that CO2 emissions from burning of fossil fuels causes destructive climate warming, proponents of the “Green New Deal” would prohibit fossil fuels by 2030. This would result in phasing out of airplane travel, not to mention a substantial revision of our national economy and lifestyle. Consumption of fossil fuels would be “net zero.” China currently emits more CO2 than the US and the European Union combined but would be immune from the US Green New Deal if enacted. CO2 emissions have generally leveled off in the industrialized world. This includes China. In the US and the European Union, CO2 emissions have actually decreased since 2007. 

Returning to the lively discussion of how climate change relates to the stratospheric polar vortex which chilled us with near record low temperatures in much of the Midwest, we cite a PBS News Hour program from 1/30/19. A climate scientist from Woods Hole Research Center, Dr. Jennifer Francis, was questioned on her view of the relationship between the late January polar vortex and climate change. The News Hour scheduled Dr. Francis only one day after the worst cold snap in years. The questioner, Amna Nawaz, seemed intent on evoking a climate change connection to the polar vortex event.

Climate scientists on both sides of the anthropocentric climate warming question agree that climate is changing. The questions remain—How much? How fast? What are the causes? And will the results be beneficial or harmful? Many scientists and politicians of today are predicting future disaster on many fronts. The questions are not close to being settled.

On the News Hour program, Dr. Francis made the point that Arctic warming has occurred significantly faster than warming at middle latitudes. Could this be the result of melting of polar ice in the Arctic? Scientists agree that sea ice in the Arctic has declined about 40% since 1970. Warmer liquid oceans could eventually warm the air over higher latitude regions and disrupt the polar vortex, causing it to break apart and send pockets of intense cold air to lower latitudes. Francis also states that water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased 5 or 6% since 1900 causing warming and more erratic behavior of the jet stream. Her newest hypothesis, however, is related to reduced sea ice in Arctic regions.

Dr. Francis concluded her presentation with a comment about the gradual climate change that we are experiencing: “…We know why: It’s all because of human activities increasing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that trap a lot more heat down by the surface.” We suggest that partly should replace all in Dr. Francis’ statement.   

Another noted climate scientist is Dr. Kevin Trenberth from National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). He agrees that the climate is undergoing significant warming and has impressive graphics to prove his point. Trenberth disagrees with Francis on the cause of the polar vortex and its connection with reduced sea ice. One of the worst stratospheric polar vortex events in 1985 did not correlate with an open ocean. Francis countered that other factors such as more water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere also could have an effect on the onset of polar vortexes. Trenberth posits that changes in ocean temperature such as those brought about by the El Nino event are as important as CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Our short post cannot begin to deal with the complex causes and effects of climate change. Some causes and effects are natural; some are man-made. Our God has created a wonderful planet and desires that humanity would exercise wise care for it. Earth is a wonderful, robust but intricate system. We offer thanks to the Creator who entrusts it to humanity’s care.