Our Fossil Fuel Addiction is leading to "Bomb Cyclones" & Famines

Thom plus logo This week's wild weather is a glimpse of what's to come if we don't get our carbon omissions under control.

Famine, already stalking humans across the globe, could soon appear right here at home and in Europe, and this week's wild weather is a small taste of how it would play out.

It all tracks back to our fossil fuel addiction, which has been warming our atmosphere since the 1860s, and is now messing with atmospheric and oceanic rivers of warm and cold water and air.

This week North America experienced the results of a "bomb cyclone," a phenomenon that happens when Arctic air spills out of the Arctic and drools down over North America. Normally that air is kept bottled up in the Arctic by a rigid, fast-moving river of air that circles the north pole called the Jet Stream.

If you've ever watched an approaching thunderstorm on an otherwise clear day, you know what happens when two masses of air with very different temperatures collide: we refer to these as "fronts," and they can stretch for hundreds of miles and carry enormous power.

UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

How The Artic Freezing Weather is Escaping

The upper-atmosphere Jet Stream, that circular river of Air that rotates around the northern polar region is much like a perpetual front, created by the difference in temperature between the frozen north pole region and the warmer regions a few hundred miles to the south.

The "front" of the Jet Stream thus acts like a "wall around a fortress" that keeps all that Arctic cold air stable and holds it over the north polar region.

Just like the intensity of a thunderstorm front is determined by the difference in temperature between the warmer air in front of it and the cold air behind it, the strength of the Jet Stream is the result of how cold the Arctic is, versus how warm is the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

Global warming, however, has sped up the warming of the Arctic region between two and six times faster than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. Polar ice has radically melted in the past 4 decades, replacing white sunlight/heat-reflecting with open blue/black water which absorbs heat instead.

This reduced the difference in temperature between the polar regions and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere so much that the Jet Stream itself has weakened.

As the atmospheric Jet Stream weakens, it can't continue to block freezing polar air exclusively over the Arctic; that Jet Stream river of air then begins to loop and drool down over North America, and the freezing Arctic air behind it spills down over us. The result is the current weather situation across the United States.

While there's some scientific debate about the exact details of how this all works, there's broad consensus that the melting of the Arctic's ice cover, something that has been rapidly accelerating since the 1980s, is principally to blame. And that's driven by fossil-fuel-burning-induced global warming.

In other words, it's getting insanely cold here in North America right now because the Arctic has warmed up so much. If this pattern continues to grow in frequency and severity, it will even further disrupt food production in North America; if it gets sufficiently severe, we could see major food shortages.

Ice is melting, polar bears are losing their habitat, Inuit and Siberian villages are sinking into gooey, melting permafrost, and the paradoxical result is that Dallas is now frozen in and shut down.

While this represents a crisis for Americans, a similar and related but different consequence of global warming deep in our oceans could spell disaster for the Northeastern US and Europeans, as the stable climate that ensures their food supply is similarly at risk.

The Great Conveyor Belt is Breaking Down and Wreaking Havoc

Global warming is messing with the temperature differentials in the extreme north to disrupt the atmospheric Jet Stream.

But there's a similar crisis happening with ocean temperature differentials. These maintain an oceanic flow of warm water from around the southern tip of Africa, up the East Coast of South and North America, and across the Atlantic, where they release heat acquired in the South Pacific and the equatorial region into an area between Iceland and northern Spain.

Scientists call this the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, but it's popularly known as the Gulf Stream. It's also called The Great Conveyor Belt, as it conveys heat from southern climes to the east coast of North America and Western Europe.

That heat released by the ocean current then blows over Europe, guaranteeing their ability to feed themselves.

This current, known as the Gulf Stream, brings heat to northern Europe, allowing an area at a latitude similar to Alaska — most of central and northern Europe — to enjoy a climate more like Ohio.

If the oceanic Gulf Stream were to weaken or fail, Europe would be plunged into a winter that might not go away. This, in fact, is believed to be one of the primary mechanisms behind the last Ice Age. It was the plot device for the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, and has had European scientists increasingly worried for the last few decades.

The Burning of Fossil Fuels is the Culprit

Last month saw the largest temperature anomalies ever measured in the Atlantic and Pacific, directly affecting the oceanic Gulf Stream, that, if they become long-term trends, could threaten the food security of hundreds of millions of Europeans as well as wreaking havoc with weather up and down the east coast of North America.

There's a detailed look at the science from a European perspective, complete with diagrams and maps, here. The impact on North America is laid out in detail here.

All of this is the result of our burning fossil fuels for the past 150 years.

Americans now realize how global warming has made hurricanes and thunderstorms more violent, set parts of the West Coast on fire, created droughts and floods across the central United States in ways never before seen with this ferocity and regularity, and is raising sea levels and endangering our coastal cities.

But as the Jet Stream to our north, and the Gulf Stream to our east continue to wobble and weaken, weather patterns that enable us to predictably grow food and maintain a habitable lifestyle are collapsing.

This severe winter weather is a warning.

If we don't get our carbon omissions under control, and quickly, severe weather disruptions that are initially inconvenient will become civilization-threatening, and eventually could bring down the human species overall.

The crisis is now.

-Thom

Originally posted on thomhartmann.medium.com.

Comments

cuz's picture
cuz 41 weeks 3 days ago
#1

Right you are Thom. Houston's 4 inch snowfall was only eclipsed by the 20 inches that fell in that city on Valentine's day in 1895.

DrRichard 41 weeks 3 days ago
#2

Cuz is doing the usual, looking at one event and ignoring the overall pattern. Weather is not climate. My mother (1913-2012) lived long enough to talk about how the average winters in New York City were getting milder, which they are, but such an observation would mean nothing if it compared any two years. Or even two decades.

Anyway, I am not at all sure that Americans are connecting the dots. Some are, particularly the younger ones, but many don't seem to get it that their rising food and insurance costs have anything to do with burning fossil fuels. And why should they, it's easy to ignore nature as "out there", until it's not.

There are dozens of others connections here, none good. The release of methane from the seabeds and tundra is what is really terrifying, a tremendous greenhouse gas, a warming world will create a positive feedback loop that lets more and more of it come out. At this point I'm not even sure that can be stopped, though obviously we've got to try.

Legend 41 weeks 3 days ago
#3

The biggest believers in climate change. And it has nothing to do if you are Republican or Democrat. Is the Insurance Companies that cover your home. Rates are going up because of more catastrophic storms that cause damage. They openly admit it.

rostasi 41 weeks 3 days ago
#4

*Arctic*

Riverplunge's picture
Riverplunge 41 weeks 3 days ago
#5

We have about 9 billion people on this tiny planet.

In 1971 Population Concern was addressed and forgotten. (It created the beginning of Earth Day.)

Even with perfect weather, how many more people can we have before the pollution each person makes to exist, and food they need to eat, runs out??

We're doomed.. The world could not settle for the agreement of having 1 or 2 kids in 1971..

SysBanana's picture
SysBanana 41 weeks 3 days ago
#6

RE: OVER-POPULATION. It's hard to honestly argue against "the doomsday scenario" when considering the challenge of over-population. And it's really not that hard to perceive and understand. I think everyone knows, really, but people just will not listen to or even tolerate a discussion of the topic, much less acknowledge that anything can be done about it. Every solution I can think of is going to be utterly distasteful to substantial portions of the world's population for one reason or another, and many of those objections are quite understandable given human nature. When it comes to over-population, the Sierra Club sold us out in the early 80's, which played a large role in why constructive conversation about it in the United States effectively ended at that point.

It seems that, even more than climate disruption (it's not "change," friends -- the Republicans chose that word -- it's disruption), realistically addressing over-population is the ultimate evolutionary test for humanity.

As someone else pointed out here, we have to keep working at it. But at this point, it doesn't seem very likely that we're going to succeed, does it? It's really awful to contemplate, because so many other species -- beautiful, miraculous creatures -- are going to be taken out with us. Already are being taken out with us. And none of *them* had any choice in the matter. It all comes down to us entirely, on this one.

alis volat's picture
alis volat 41 weeks 2 days ago
#7

The news Tuesday was all about Texas freezing and having no electricity. The righties want to blame it on frozen windmills. What a load of steer manure! Their "crap" only brought out the truth. The main reason has to do with their natural gas systems and grid. From The Guardian: "As Texas governor Greg Abbott ordered an investigation into the failures of the grid, Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said the problem was caused by lack of investment in the state’s deregulated power system. Texas is alone in having its own grid. The other lower 48 states are connected to either the eastern or western interconnection grids, and can draw on power supplies across state lines when necessary."

They have little or no zoning regulation in Houston; during Hurricane Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda, Houston drown. Radio host NorMan Goldman used to call it Tex-ass-istan. We are going to turn that place Blue and save some lives, because we are not allergic to regulation.

It seemed like it took forever to get the world to accept the climate crisis. Now that we have, Mother Nature is going to make damn sure we get the picture of the cascade of events to come. The US is four years behind schedule, but better late than never.

Legend 41 weeks 2 days ago
#8

I agree that over population is a major contributor. This is a great site to study world population. Look at what it has done in your lifetime. The continent of Africa has tripled in population since 1980. Most will live and die in extreme poverty. The USA has doubled in population since 1953. India has doubled in population since 1975. Even China with its attempt to control population growth (one child rule) has doubled since 1965. China has 4.3X the population of the USA. 30 years ago the population in China and India had very few refrigerators, air conditioners or cars. Now most do. Think about this next time you are in stop and go traffic getting zero miles per gallon (we should use metric).

Texas has traditionally had a Summer Peak demand caused by heat and air conditioner use. Homes did not even start to be air conditioned until the 60's. But air conditioners draw electricity only. This cold snap in Texas used natural gas for home heating. This natural gas surge competed with the utilities that use natural gas to produce electricity. so, the major cause has been not enough natural gas. This is in a state that has thousands of wells that flare the excess gas and Thousands of abandoned wells that leak natural gas into the atmosphere. Texas has also doubled in population since 1980. It is not the windmills icing as Fox News will tell you. Windmills do just fine in Iowa and other ice climates. Texas is also its own grid and its own electrical regulation. There are 3 grids in the USA, East, West and Texas. Texas wants to remain its own grid because it is Freedumb. Peak demand is a very real problem for the utilities. Normal average production vs peak demand can be huge. to meet the demand, they have to draw from other parts of the country or have a bunch of idol power plants that can be brought online to meet the demand. These idol plants have to have trained operators and maintenance personnel to keep them ready. That costs a lot to staff non-operating plants. This is why I am in favor of a National Grid. It makes no sense to have hundreds of small utilities, that are local monopolies, that are only interested in their small local areas. With a National Grid we would be looking at the entire country. We could have DC (low line loss) transmission from east to west and north to south. This would even out our demand. Also, a National Grid would buy electricity from the private producers at low bid. Right now, you pay for whatever they can get away with in your local area and there is no competition.

It is fun to watch!

cuz's picture
cuz 41 weeks 2 days ago
#9

The video of a helicopter flying on fossil fuels spraying a chemical made from fossil fuels on a frozen windmill made from fossil fuels during an ice storm is awesome.

Thank God people are able to buy portable generators made from fossil fuels and run on fossil fuels so they can recharge their electric vehicles which were made from fossil fuels.

As for solar and wind power as the primary source of supplied power, ask Germany who is now depending on coal to cover the severe power shortages.

djgilbert 41 weeks 2 days ago
#10

Excellent call on the issue of food security. Despite having a huge agricultural sector, the U.S. is very exposed to food shortages due to a very inefficient food system in terms of people fed per hectare.

Fully 67% of the calories produced by U.S. agriculture go to animal feed. Having substantial acreage tied up feed production, with crops that people cannot eat, creates yet another risk for human nutrition. The challenge of converting cropland from feed to food activities is substantial. The economic dislocation will be considerable as would the political fallout from the small population states. That is not to mention the ecological toll that factory animal agriculture exacts in terms of water pollution, methane, and CO2.

Interesting University of Minnesota study at https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015

Legend 41 weeks 2 days ago
#11

People like Cuz are too stupid to understand that you cannot flip a switch and suddenly be 100% converted to renewable energy overnight. Cuz has a Fox News ignorance problem. The country Germany that Cuz uses as an example of dependent on coal, but would be much worse without renewables. A better example would be the United Kingdom or Denmark. Both are a lot colder than Texas. Renewables are way ahead of where naysayers like Cuz thought they would be. If windmills freezing up was a real problem you would not see them in Iowa, Illinois etc. If it was a problem, they would run a pipe up the tower and pump deicing solution. A lot of the problems in Texas has been fossil plants with frozen pipes. I have worked at dozens of large industrial plants and they have their icing problems also. Plus as I pointed out the Texas problem is a natural gas (fossil fuel) distribution problem. Mexico has also been hit by this natural gas shortage.

Legend 41 weeks 2 days ago
#12

Did the Russians finally find the Administrator? It is very quite on the Western Front.

cuz's picture
cuz 41 weeks 2 days ago
#13

A few climate records for Texas. We can leave out the tremendous increase in population that obviously contributes to the situation and captures the headlines.

Temperature

Lowest

Tulia, Feb. 12, 1899 -23°F

Seminole, Feb. 8, 1933 -23°F

Highest

Seymour, Aug. 12, 1936 120°F

Monahans, June 28, 1994 120°F

Coldest Winter, 1898-1899 42.5°F

Warmest Summer, 2011 86.6°F

Wind Velocity

Highest sustained wind

Matagorda - Sept. 11, 1961 SE, 145 mph

Port Lavaca - Sept. 11, 1961 NE, 145 mph

Highest peak gust

Aransas Pass - Aug. 3, 1970 SW, 180 mph

Robstown - Aug. 3, 1970 WSW, 180 mph

Tornadoes

Since 1950, there have been six tornadoes recorded of the F5 category, that is, with winds between 261-318 mph. They were:

Waco May 11, 1953

Wichita Falls April 3, 1964

Lubbock May 11, 1970

Valley Mills (McLennan Co.) May 6, 1973

Brownwood April 19, 1976

Jarrell (Williamson Co.) May 27, 1997

Rainfall

Wettest year statewide - 2015 41.23 in.

Driest year statewide -- 1917 14.06 in.

Greatest annual - Clarksville -- 1873 109.38 in.

Least annual - Wink - 1956 1.76 in.

†Most in 24 hours – Alvin, July 25-26, 1979 43.00 in.

Hail

(Hailstones six inches or greater, since 1950)

Winkler County - May 31, 1960 8.00 in.

Young County - April 14, 1965 7.50 in.

Ward County - May 10, 1991 6.00 in.

Burleson County - Dec. 17, 1995 7.05 in.

Snowfall

Greatest seasonal - Romero1 (Hartley Co.), 1923-1924 65.0 in.

Greatest monthly - Hale Center, Feb. 1956 36.0 in.

Greatest single storm - Hale Center, Feb. 1-8, 1956 33.0 in.

Greatest in 24 Hours - Cleburne, Dec. 21-22, 1929 26.0 in.

Greatest annual average - Vega, Oldham County 24.2 in.

RIP Rush, your bombastic style and tongue-in-cheek humor will be missed.

deepspace's picture
deepspace 41 weeks 2 days ago
#14

Of course cuz is a climate denier and a Limbaugh dittohead. That wasn't hard to figure out.

KMA, Rush. May you rot in hell for hopelessly poisoning America's political discourse with your despicable, "tongue-in-cheek" lies.

Or, his worst nightmare, may he be reborn as a Democratic black transgender woman in a "far-left," pro-choice, "libtard" family of feminists, vegetarians, and socialists who believe in science, in renewable energy, in the truth of human-caused climate destruction, in Medicare for all, in taxpayer-funded higher education, and in taxing the hell out of the traitorous greedheads on Wall Street to pay for it all.

Or better yet, may Limpball's fat, greasy body be skewered on a spit and slowly roasted over fire and brimstone on the sacrificial alter of cannibalistic, Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Now that would be karmic justice ...and just really damn funny.

Yes, his, ah, "bombastic style" and "humor" will be sorely missed -- almost as fun as squeezing your hemorrhoids.

rostasi 41 weeks 2 days ago
#15

cuz is ready to bring the snowballs-proof out.

deepspace's picture
deepspace 41 weeks 2 days ago
#16

Yup, this latest cold snap is proof positive that climate destruction science is nothing but a goddamn liberal plot to destroy America's competitive advantage.

SueN's picture
SueN 41 weeks 2 days ago
#17

Darn, Legend, they must have heard you, and found another way in.

deepspace's picture
deepspace 41 weeks 2 days ago
#18

#'s 5 & 6, Riverplunge, SysBanana.

We are bacteria on a petri dish in an unforgiving vacuum lost in endless blackness. It doesn't look like anyone will come to our rescue any time soon, if ever. And our gods are warring with each other, as always.

Last spring while digging camping gear out of the shed, I came across an old aluminum coffee percolator, which had been put away a few years prior with grounds left in the basket that had turned into a fine white powder.

"...for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." - KJV: Genesis 3-19

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. In 2020, it fell on August 22.

deepspace's picture
deepspace 41 weeks 1 day ago
#19

DrRichard #2. That's a great summary of the most critical points: the long-term pattern; the high financial cost of messing with Mother Nature; the increasing rate of methane release; the feedback loop; the tipping point.

Too much methane bubbling into the atmosphere will drive up the rate of temperature increase to the point that most land and sea species won't have time to evolve and adapt and will therefore die out in Earth's sixth mass extinction event, worse than the Permian extinction 250 million years ago that wiped out more than ninety percent of life. When the burning of carbon heats up the planet enough so that vast amounts of methane escape from ocean shelves and tundra, the tipping point for a runaway climate catastrophe is imminent and humankind's ability to mitigate the worst effects becomes inadequate.

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