Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Weather, climate, culture

How does climate change change our perception of everyday weather? Yesterday, we enjoyed after a cold and rainy May a really fine (early) summer day in Hamburg. But are there still any innocent 'fine summer days' at all? On June 1st, I read on climateprogress that  May was far too hot elsewhere, and things are not better at home. Joe Romm reminds me that I shouldn't pretend to be innocent anymore. No one should. For example, in the US records are broken permanently: “Climate change is making itself felt in terms of day-to-day weather in the United States,” says Gerald Meehl, the lead author and a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “The ways these records are being broken show how our climate is already shifting.”

Is it cynical then to speak of a 'fine summer day'? Maybe yesterday was a record breaking day or another day adding to the overall rise of average temperatures. Who knows. Was the short rain shower on our bike ride in Hamburg already a sign of the 'tropicalization' of the North? We said so, jokingly, while getting wet on our bikes. How do weather and climate, science and everyday experience relate? How did these relations change? How does this change our sense of weather and climate?
As a contrast, just read a description of a fine summer day in 1913 in a masterful piece of literature and make your own judgment:

"A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and the setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapour in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913."
Robert Musil ' Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften' (Man without Qualities)


Zajko said...

We are dealing with some chilly times in my part of the world. When someone heard I was interested in global warming yesterday they scoffed at the idea in reference to the weather outside, which has been unseasonable for a couple of weeks.
Several authors have emphasized the role of our direct experience of the weather as shaping our ideas of the climate - for example the 1988 heat wave has been cited several times in the construction of the global warming problem.
These real-world events and experiences can be more persuasive than any scientific findings. However the opposite is also certainly true, as our view of the climate affects our experience of the weather, or at least how we notice and interpret it. Global warming is such a flexible idea that confirmation for it can be found it seems in just about any weather phenomenon. The weather then ceases to be neutral occurrence of nature, but becomes an expression of the consequences of modernity - a form of climate karma perhaps.
And on the flipside, it is just as possible to see the latest cold winter, or expansion of Arctic sea ice as indicators that all is right with the world, and nature is up to its usual tricks.

isaacschumann said...

We've also had some unseasonable weather here in Indiana as well, the times, they are a changin'.

My understanding is that human's have evolved during an inter glacial period; an unusually calm and cool climate, relatively speaking. A changing climate seems to be the norm. And how does our belief that seasons will come and go at the same time every year look in this light?

The passage from the book describing the typical summer day assumes that the sun, moon, planets and climate should all flow harmoniously along; like a perpetual motion machine, meeting at the same points every year, just as our sages predicted. Maybe this is the cultural construction? Human's like security and permanence, and our philosophies of climate reflect this. We clearly have some adapting to do;)

Werner Krauss said...

I think there is some deep irony in Musil's weather report. On the one hand, at the beginning of the 20th century, weather reports indeed were presented in this sophisticated style. On the other hand, in August 1913 we are on the eve of WWI - the end of the k.u.k. empire stands in stark contrast to the meteorological and even cosmic harmony presented in this weather report.

In WWI, the German gas attacks gave a new meaning to the air or atmosphere surrounding us. The air that we breath is no longer granted; it is vulnerable now. According to the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, this air-terrorism made clear once and for all that there is no longer any innocence in respect to weather, climate or our general air / condition!

eduardo said...

One of the things that makes climate different from weather is the long-term perspective. For instance, concerning record breaking temperatures in the US, it seems that the 1930's were the unusual period .
Globally, the picture is different, but then we get into the usual problem of 'demonstrating' global warming with regional data. Sometimes it fits, sometime it does not

eduardo said...

@ 2

'My understanding is that human's have evolved during an inter glacial period'

I think this is not totally accurate. Interglacial periods are quite short-lived, compared to glacial periods. In the past million years or so, the Earth has been mostly in glacial periods, which have been interrupted by short (~10-20 thousand years long) interglacials. I may be here out of my depth but as far as I know, present humans evolved in the last say 150 thousand years, and so they mostly experienced a glacial period, with only two short intergalcials, about 120 thousand years ago and presently, the last 10 thousand years.

isaacschumann said...

Thanks Eduardo,

Would it be more accurate to say that human societies developed during an interglacial? What I'm getting at is that our (humans) experience of the earth's climate may be quite limited, with recorded history taking place during a stable and cool climate. It may be unreasonable to expect this to persist, especially if we change the chemistry of the atmosphere ourselves.

eduardo said...

Isaac, the last 7 thousand years or so have been indeed quite stable compared with other periods in the past and agriculture developed also in this recent period. Some think there is a connection, but my knowledge is limited to say something brilliant here. But it sounds reasonable.

Whether or not these last 8 thousand years were colder than today is , as usual in climate, debatable. Summers in the Northern Hemisphere were probably warmer than the temperatures in the preindustrial level. Eigth thousand years ago, for instance, the tree line around the Arctic was situated north of its current position- although forest today would need some time to expand to new favorable areas. Summer temperatures have been slightly declining through the Holocene, and should naturally be leading up to a new glacial state in a few thousands years from now. Humans might have interrupted this decline, I think you are right that human societies have not experienced yet global temperature levels 2-3 degrees higher than today.