by Dana Heupel
The voice on my radio this morning intoned that this was the seventh-wettest spring in Illinois since records began being kept in 1895. Statewide, we slogged through an average of 15.4 inches of the wet stuff from March through May, 4.3 inches above average.
And then came June, with an early heat wave that stoked temperatures up into the 90s across Illinois and much of the eastern part of the nation. And that followed this spring’s horrendous tornado outbreaks in Missouri, Alabama and elsewhere, along with the disastrous floods down South.
It seems to me that the weather in recent years has become more volatile: The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and records that measure such things as rain, snow and violent storms are broken more often. So to test that assumption, I decided to do some quick research. I don’t pretend to have found any definitive answers. Scientists have devoted much of their lives to this question, and the truth is, nobody can say for certain whether the recent seemingly wild swings of the weather pendulum are caused by humans or result from a natural Earth cycle — or more likely, a combination of both. So what follows are simply some admittedly cherry-picked opinions — no more, no less — without any agenda other than I thought it might be interesting. Some even have Illinois ties.
On one end of the spectrum is Cliff Harris, who bills himself as a climatologist and operates a website called longrangeweather.com along with TV meteorologist Randy Mann.
In his weekly weather column in the Coeur d’Alene Press in Idaho, Harris said on June 6 that the idea that humans caused global warming is “a massive fraud in my opinion, a LIE, pure and simple. … This is a clever deception put forth by those attempting to impose a centralized, worldwide socialistic form of government headed by an empowered United Nations.”
On his website, he writes: “For more than 20 years, I’ve frequently mentioned that we’ve entered a long-term climate cycle of WIDE WEATHER ‘EXTREMES,’ [Harris’ emphasis] the strongest such cycle in more than 1,000 years, since the days of Leif Ericsson, the mighty Norse Chieftain, who with his powerful Vikings, actually farmed Greenland. Then came the ‘Little Ice Age’ that eventually wiped them out.
“Since the latest cycle of global warming peaked about a decade ago, we have begun a slow, but steady, period of cooling in the mid-latitudes, this despite some lingering warming in the Arctic regions.
“It remains my firm climatological opinion that when widely-opposing air masses clash headlong, there are usually dire, often deadly, meteorological and climatological consequences. That’s what led to our all-time record tornadoes in April and our record May flooding in the Mississippi Valley. Believe it!”
Harris says weather cycles can be charted back to at least 2500 B.C., and to help bolster his argument, he points to a now-defunct Illinois operation. “From the late 1940s through the early 1970s,” Harris and Mann write elsewhere on the website, “a climate research organization called the Weather Science Foundation of Crystal Lake, Illinois, determined that the planet’s warm, cold, wet and dry periods were the result of alternating short-term and long-term climatic cycles.”
On the opposite side of the debate are scientists such as Thomas Karl, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, and Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In the December 5, 2003, issue of the journal Science, they write about climate changes they say should more aptly be called “global heating.”
“There is no doubt that the composition of the atmosphere is changing because of human activities, and today greenhouse gases are the largest human influence on global climate. … The likely outcome is more frequent heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation events, and related impacts (such as wildfires, heat stress, vegetation changes, and sea level rise) that will be regionally dependent,” they say.
Karl’s and Trenberth’s views are shared by the American Geophysical Union, an organization of scientists that reports more than 58,000 members worldwide. Also in 2003, the union issued this position statement: “Human activities are increasingly altering the Earth’s climate. These effects add to natural influences that have been present over Earth’s history. Scientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed during the second half of the 20th century.”
And finally, in 2009, researchers Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman at the University of Illinois Chicago reported the results of a survey they offered to 10,257 earth scientists. Of the 3,146 who responded, 90 percent believed that temperatures on Earth have risen since 1800, and 82 percent thought humans played a significant role in that increase. The overall results contrast with a Gallup survey taken last March that showed that 55 percent of the general public believe global warming is occurring, and 52 percent believe temperature increases over the last century were caused by human activity, while 43 percent thought they were caused by natural forces.
So there we have it: Climate changes result from natural cycles — not human activities — and in fact, the recent violent weather is because we’re actually on the cusp of a cool-down. Or … it’s absolutely certain that the Earth is getting warmer, human activities have played a huge role and the higher temperatures will continue to cause weather extremes.
I’m not qualified to weigh in on that debate. And it’s obvious that like nearly everything else Illinois Issues writes about, those questions have become all too polarized and politicized.
But one of the few advantages of having survived into my 60s is a certain amount of perspective. And from my vantage point, it certainly seems as if the weather is getting weirder.
Illinois Issues, July/August 2011