Weather Whiplash: Climate Change and Its Effects

Today's post is written by our summer volunteer, Anthony Margulies. Anthony is a junior at City University of New York, Hunter College in the Macaulay Honors College studying environmental science, economics and geography. Anthony grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx and first became interested in the environment when he joined his high school environmental club and helped to combat non-native invasive species in Van Cortlandt Park. Since then he's taken a keen interest in climate change and sustainability. Anthony hopes to one day work for a private sector firm as an investor in green and sustainable technologies. 

Farmers in the Midwest are again frustrated by Mother Nature. Forget the tornados for the moment; the constant back and forth between drought and flooding that dominates summer headlines appears to be worsening. For the average American, it is often frustrating when news anchors link these headlines to climate change or global warming, especially since they often don't explain how or why. Eco-literacy matters, and it's worth taking a moment to focus on the differences, connections between climate change and global warming, and the implications of both, not just for the US agricultural industry, but for the energy sector as well.

Wild weather has economic effects around the country. When triple-digit heat waves hit major cities, electricity consumption for cooling spikes, leading to higher energy prices.

It is important to understand that climate change and global warming are not the same things. Global warming may lead to climate change and climate change may imply warming temperatures, but these are correlations, not cause and effect. Simply put, global warming is an increase in average surface temperatures here on earth, and temperatures have risen 0.75 degrees C (1.3 degrees F) over the last 150 years. Climate change, on the other hand, refers to long-term changes in weather patterns. In fact, climate analyses are based on 30-year averages of weather patterns that include things like temperature, wind, precipitation, sunlight, humidity and assorted other meteorological variables that determine weather. Another important distinction is weather vs. climate. Weather is the day-to-day variation of the meteorological conditions of the atmosphere in a given area, whereas climate takes the average of these conditions over a much longer (30-year) time period.

So how does this tie in to US agriculture and energy? Meteorologist and Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters says that changes in the jet stream seem to be the cause of the woes for farmers in the Midwest. These changes are "exposing us to longer periods of extreme weather, and they've gotten more extreme" says Masters. The trends appear to be long-term, and may be evidence of climate change in the region. Furthermore, they appear to be linked to global warming. How so? Arctic and North Atlantic Oscillations.

The Arctic Oscillation refers to a circular wind pattern around the arctic that is weakened by global warming and strengthened by cooling. As global temperatures warm, the difference in temperature between the equator and the poles is lessened, resulting in weaker equator-to-pole wind flows, which, in turn, results in a weakened Arctic Oscillation. Weak (or negative) Arctic Oscillations have a spillover effect for the North Atlantic Oscillation, also known as the jet stream.

Changes in the strength and location of high and low pressure systems in the Atlantic play a role. The reduced temperature gradient that weakens the Arctic Oscillation causes changes in the pressure system, which allows the jet stream to sink very low in the US. The effects of this process are felt most strongly in winter. Think single digit temperatures and television meteorologists talking about a polar air mass that has moved in because of a change in the jet stream. This is a short-term weather phenomenon caused by global warming which appears to be causing measurable changes in climate over the past decade.

The Implications for agriculture and energy are serious and, in the Midwest, are especially noticeable during summer. Climatologist Mark Svoboda says that flash droughts, caused by dry air masses moving south as a result of changes in the Arctic/ North Atlantic Oscillations, are just one problem. Last year's drought "racked up $35 billion in losses" alone, says climatologist Brian Fuchs. Additionally, excessive rain is caused by fluctuations in the jet stream that allow moist air masses to dominate as the jet stream rebounds back and forth reports NOAA. According to farmer Jeff Miller, the flooding associated with such air masses can delay or prevent farming activities, leading to higher food prices due to shortages in supply.

Wild weather has economic effects all around the country. When triple-digit heat waves hit major cities, electricity consumption for cooling spikes. According to the EIA, this increased demand leads to higher energy prices. Florida citrus disasters caused by cold air make buying orange juice much more costly. Lastly, increased heating oil usage and lost economic productivity from increased snowfall across the country increase prices as well.

Economic reasons alone should be enough cause for alarm for people to take climate change more seriously, but the endless list of other consequences is even more daunting. Understanding how changes in one part of the system, such as warming and subsequent jet stream alterations, can lead to cascading affects in the rest of the system, such as agriculture and energy, is the basis for developing appropriate 21st century nexus policies.