Kurt Olson: More storm surges ahead

I tell my environmental law students how I get so frustrated when I hear the television meteorologists talk about what a whopper of a storm we’re having or how “impressive” a particular storm event is.

I understand that television news is really all about entertainment these days, and the word “news” as applied to television is a misnomer at best. I also understand that weather prediction is an inexact science, and these folks are lucky if they’re right half the time. What worries me is that these so-called experts never connect the dots between the cause of these “impressive” storm events and the increasing frequency and intensity with which they’re occurring – at least until Joe Joyce stood in three feet of storm surge in Marshfield recently.

As the water cascaded into a residential neighborhood behind him, Joyce, WBZ-TV’s weekend morning meteorologist and weekday environmental reporter, said that we should expect to see more water in coastal communities as sea levels rise another one or two feet in the next century. Now, while Joyce never mentioned the cause that shall not be named – the 500 lb. gorilla in the room, global warming – at least he injected some much-needed reality into the discussion. Unfortunately, according to the more realistic estimates provided by the most well-respected climate scientists (all of whom must be distinguished from television meteorologists), Joyce is likely a little short in his estimates.

Even conservative estimates by those in the know put global sea level increases at three to five feet this century, given the amount of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases already in the atmosphere. These are what climate scientists like to call the gases “already in the pipeline because,” CO2 and other gases persist in the atmosphere. CO2 dumped by industry and individuals 100 years ago are driving the temperature increases and the storms, droughts, and other climate anomalies that are affecting us today. Today we continue to pump massive quantities of these gases into the atmosphere simply because we can’t muster the political will to overcome the enormous power of the fossil fuel industries.

Regrettably, continuing on the business-as-usual path we’re currently on translates into globally averaged temperature increases of between 10 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. This would mean temperatures not measured on the Earth for millions of years, and this would put the ice sheets on both Greenland and Antarctica at dire risk. Should those two sheets disintegrate, we would likely see global sea level rise between 20 and 30 feet. Wave goodbye to the coastlines as you know them today.

Thus, the calculated ignorance of television meteorologists strains credulity and causes understandable frustration among those who know what’s happening. WBZ-TV chief meteorologist Todd Gutner, trying to offer excuses for his and his colleagues’ abject failure to predict the snow totals for the early March storm, offered the following: “It was very unpredictable and unprecedented for a weather pattern 600 miles away from us to funnel so much moisture into the storm.”

Sadly, it has now been almost 25 years since Dr. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies predicted exactly such “unprecedented” events. Hansen addressed a congressional committee, telling legislators that as the earth’s climate continued to warm, more moisture would rise from the planet’s major water bodies, essentially making water vapor the most plentiful global warming gas. In turn, this would cause huge accumulations or troughs of water in the atmosphere which would eventually spill out of the sky in monster storms.

So, Gutner should go back to his special weather truck, plug in some more numbers, and recognize that weather patterns half as big as continents will continue to impose their destructive effects on cities hundreds, and eventually thousands, of miles away.
A warning for the newsman who intoned at the end of the storm story, “We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with this storm”: It may be a light at the end of this storm’s pipe, but it’s a deluge at the end of the climate tunnel.
Kurt Olson is an associate professor at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover.
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