From the Winter That Wasn’t To The Spring That Isn’t

Soaring temperatures, plants blooming ahead of season—what does this heat wave portend for summer?

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Carl Court

People enjoy the warm weather in a park in central London on March 15, 2012.

Everyone on the East coast is talking about the winter that wasn’t. Ski season was a bust; as early as January, some stores began having “Global Warming Sales” on snow gear. But never mind winter. Now we may be skipping spring. So far, 2,200 temperature records have been shattered around the country.

Climate scientists who have been predicting the dangerous consequences of rising greenhouse gas pollution may as well go ahead and say it: We told you so. What we’re experiencing now isn’t a new normal. This is the end of normal. Human-generated greenhouse gas pollution (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and three groups of fluorinated gases: sufure hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs) has thrown the natural atmospheric balance out of whack. Our gorgeous planetary system of natural sources of carbon dioxide absorbed by natural sinks, like photosynthesis and marine plankton, has been disrupted; we’re putting out more pollution than the earth can absorb.

(MORE: Browning: The Countdown to Clean Air Begins)

We indulge ourselves in a consoling fiction that New York will simply become like…Atlanta. Would that climate change were so simple. The Upper Midwest has reached midsummer levels, in mid-March. The Twin Cities have seen record highs in 8 of the last 10 days in the Twin Cities. Four of Chicago’s five warmest March days just recently occurred; the mind-boggling thing isn’t just a day of heat, but heat waves that stretch across many days. And, as Heidi Cullen, a scientist at Climate Central, explained, that warm weather “set the stage for severe thunderstorms that spawned rare, damaging tornadoes near Detroit.”

We have achieved Global Weirding.

Gardeners have been remarking on the arrival of plants as much as three weeks ahead of schedule. Many of us raking and pruning are operating on two tracks: one is sheer pleasure at being able to garden all day long—in shirt sleeves, in Rhode Island, in mid-March!  But another part of us is muttering anxiously. There’s a disconnect between the arrival of pollinators and the blooming of plants. There’s a danger of late, killing frosts—after the blooming cycle has begun, destroying crops and fruit trees. And there’s another nagging worry. Never mind spring, even. What does this heat wave portend for summer?

But it’s not just uncomfortable heat we have to face but risks on human health. Let’s start with the pest problem. Bugs that normally die during winter—such as the ticks that carry Lyme disease—made it through easily this year, as they have for a while now. This year is part of a longer trend. The rate of Lyme disease in New Hampshire is about eight times what it was ten years ago, and Lyme disease is moving into Canada. Dengue fever—“break-bone fever”— has appeared in Florida, courtesy of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also bringing in yellow fever. With global warming, the mosquito has expanded its range.

(MORE: Dengue Fever Creeps Back Into The US—and Climate Change Isn’t Helping)

Severe and prolonged heat isn’t good for our lungs. Greenhouse gas pollution increases air pollution like smog. That worsens conditions like bronchitis, emphysema, and congestion. Smog is especially dangerous for children who have asthma, and it is associated with pneumonia and other respiratory infections that can be life threatening. The elderly are especially vulnerable to the ravages of heat waves.

And ragweed! The bane of American allergy sufferers. Bad news there. These long warm spells mean longer allergy seasons—millions of people will have a lot of trouble breathing. Pollen counts generally have been increasing markedly in recent decades; cities in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota saw their pollen seasons grow by 11, 12, and 16 days. For that matter, warmer global temperatures are a gift to all invasive species. And most of them are not going to be welcome guests—for good reason. Plants like poison ivy thrive on higher CO2 concentrations.

What is most appalling about this situation is that we know how to fix the problem. But in spite of many polls showing that Americans support a fight against global warming, don’t hold your breath for leadership from Washington, D.C. on greenhouse gas regulations. Most Democrats, much less Republicans, seem reluctant to generate controversial regulations restricting carbon emissions now. It will be a huge victory for President Obama’ s administration to give safe passage to its strong new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards—and that rule will go a long way towards cutting carbon pollution. But right now, the president is sweating out his own warming cycle: election season.

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