Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Snowman Cometh

A beach friend knows that we've been holed up lately in a research library. Warm and cozy there? No. More like chilly, drafty, and echoing with the rasping coughs and sneezes of other patrons, which now have successfully infected us, too.

The friend wanted to call to our attention Tuesday afternoon's "Special Weather Statement" from the National Weather Service:
Our friend added: "Do you believe this??? I will, but only when I see the first flake of snow on this island in the decade we've been here."

Today's daily -- which, astoundingly, we found in one piece this morning, rather than scattered all over the neighboring yards by howling winds -- follows up with this cutesy front-page headline:

The shivering fellow you see there, by the way, lives on the streets in Philadelphia, not Pensacola. However, if you were to air-brush the snow and beard away, he easily could be the guy sitting across from us in the library yesterday.

This morning's NWS forecast is a little more modest:

As the newspaper observes, snow in the northwestern panhandle of Florida is not unknown. "The last time the flurries flew in the area was Jan. 1-3, 2002."

Snow isn't foreign to Gulf Coast beach communities. We remember waking up on Pensacola beach to something that sure looked like snow two successive mornings during the bitter winter of 1995-96, after Hurricane Opal. A close relative who lived in a condo on Ft. Walton Beach in the '70s saw an inch of snow there at least once. She was told by old-timers that at least a dusting of the white stuff happened about once every six or eight years.

Predictably, a lot of ignorant right-wingers -- something we are never without here in the Redneck Riviera, whatever the temperature -- are politicizing this winter's weather to argue it refutes the science of global warming. That's on the same intellectual plane as the Pope who was so sure that the Bible and his own eyes disproved any suggestion by Galileo that the earth revolved around the sun. It wasn't until 1992 that the Church admitted, sort of, that he might have been right.

As Dr. Jeff Masters pointed out recently, if anything "extra moisture in the air" is one of the necessary consequences of a globe that has warmed "0.74°C (1.3°F) over the past 100 years." Masters adds:
It's not hard at all to get temperatures cold enough for snow in a world experiencing global warming. * * * There will still be colder than average winters in a world that is experiencing warming, with plenty of opportunities for snow. The more difficult ingredient for producing a record snowstorm is the requirement of near-record levels of moisture. Global warming theory predicts that global precipitation will increase, and that heavy precipitation events--the ones most likely to cause flash flooding--will also increase. This occurs because as the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air.

According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. This extra moisture in the air will tend to produce heavier snowstorms, assuming it is cold enough to snow. Groisman et al. (2004) found a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events in the U.S. over the past 100 years, though mainly in spring and summer. However, the authors did find a significant increase in winter heavy precipitation events have occurred in the Northeast U.S. This was echoed by Changnon et al. (2006), who found, "The temporal distribution of snowstorms exhibited wide fluctuations during 1901-2000, with downward 100-yr trends in the lower Midwest, South, and West Coast. Upward trends occurred in the upper Midwest, East, and Northeast, and the national trend for 1901-2000 was upward, corresponding to trends in strong cyclonic activity."
Snow in the Florida Panhandle? Now that obstructionist Republicans, gutless Democrats, and the White House have abandoned the cap-and-trade legislation, you'd better get used to it. Unregulated carbon emissions almost certainly will melt the Arctic ice cap within a generation and bring more... and more... snow to Pensacola.

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