Earlier this month a weather phenomenon known as a "polar vortex" blasted the Midwest with cold air that plunged daytime temperatures well below freezing.
This polar vortex may have brought record cold to parts of the United States, but the phenomenon isn't altogether uncommon. In fact, it's the usual culprit behind our typically mild Portland-area winters periodically giving way to "snowmageddons" and "snowpocalypses."
With the streets of downtown Chicago more frigid than the environs of the Curiosity rover on Mars, one might wonder what happened to that "global warming" that egghead scientists like to shout and wave their arms about.
The answer is typical: It's still here. In fact, counterintuitively, it might be to blame for this.
The Arctic polar vortex is constant in Earth's atmosphere. When it shifts south into the temperate zone, though, that generally isn't a sign that it is strengthening. According to meteorologists, Arctic blasts like the one that hit the Midwest are actually triggered when the vortex is destabilized — weakening, in effect, due to warmer polar air. In fact, a quick glance at a temperature anomaly map of the Earth from earlier this month shows that while temperatures in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario were well below normal, temperatures across Alaska, parts of Greenland and the Arctic Ocean were way warmer than normal.
Furthermore, as the term "global warming" suggests, climate change doesn't just affect North America. Even as Midwesterners were fighting to avoid hypothermia and frostbite, Australians were sweating through a heat wave that has also set temperature records in places. Tens of thousands were left without electricity in Buenos Aires, Argentina, due to heat-related blackouts.
Many experts believe that if the current rate of global warming does not slow, extreme weather events like this will become more common and widespread. The growing season will get longer and the baseline temperature in many places will rise — but the number and intensity of anomalies will increase as well. That means more Arctic blasts, more triple-digit heat waves, more hurricanes and typhoons, and more wildfires.
The link between human activity and climate change is well established. While global average temperatures have gradually risen and fallen over past millennia, climatologists have found no other plausible explanation for the sudden and dramatic spike since the late 19th century.
Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which are put out by motor vehicles, power plants and livestock, trap more heat within the Earth's atmosphere. This leads in turn to warmer oceans and as their carbon levels rise and their oxygen levels fall, the delicate balance of marine biological webs is disrupted. Particularly pessimistic projections suggest the world's fisheries face total collapse by the middle of this century. For those not counting, that's only about 30 years away.
Global warming is also causing sea ice to melt and ice shelves to collapse in places like Antarctica and Greenland. The melting of Earth's ice caps has a couple of devastating effects. Probably the best-known of these is that it increases the volume of water in the oceans, leading to sea level rise that can swamp low-lying islands and coastal zones. But also significant is the reduction in surface albedo, or reflectiveness. Ice and snow are extremely reflective; that's why ski goggles are tinted like sunglasses to reduce glare. As ice coverage declines, so does the amount of solar radiation naturally reflected by the planet's surface. This creates a feedback loop; the melting of the ice caps means they melt faster.
As individuals, we can do our part to cut down on waste and reduce our own carbon footprint. But ultimately, in order to stave off the worst-case climate change scenarios, our economy itself has to change. Oil and natural gas production in the United States hit all-time highs in late 2018. As those record amounts of fuel are burned, it steers us further onto the wrong trajectory. Proposals to increase deforestation in places like the Amazon rainforest, converting the planet's best natural carbon sinks into greenhouse gas-emitting factory farms, are even worse.
The federal government is divided, as it has been for decades, about whether it should even take anthropogenic climate change seriously. President Donald Trump has described it as a "hoax," firing off a mocking Tweet just last week asking global warming to "please come back fast." Congressional proposals to take meaningful action have stalled. In a supremely unhelpful gesture, Trump announced in 2017 that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, an international accord aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Fortunately, Oregon has an opportunity this year to do its part.
The Legislature has formed a set of work groups to discuss clean energy jobs, an initiative being promoted by Renew Oregon and other environmentalist groups. It's a multi-pronged approach, but its central thrust is a cap on statewide greenhouse gas emissions that would go into effect in 2021, which would decrease every year until 2050. The program would also pay utility companies to reduce their emissions, cities and counties to develop "climate action plans," and workers in affected industries to receive training in new fields of work.
The final version of clean energy jobs legislation has yet to take shape; a long-awaited first public draft of the bill was released last week. We hope Yamhill County lawmakers will do their part to ensure that it will be effective, innovative and ultimately beneficial to people in our community.
Oregon led the way with container recycling in the 1970s. We hope to see Oregon lead the way again in responding to climate change in the 2020s.
If the world does not take action, together, then the effects of climate change will continue to — quite literally — snowball. For our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, our planet could wind up a far less hospitable place than it is today.
This isn't science fiction. It's science fact.
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