What’s going on with this wacky, warm winter? Experts have theories

Does one mild winter or a succession of such winters hale the arrival of global warming and impending disaster?

Weather experts in Kansas have come to their own conclusions.

Yes, some say, this is just part of the normal Kansas weather-cycle pattern, at least as normal as it can happen. And, yes, global warming is happening-it’s measurably verifiable. But, no, it won’t be immediately disastrous.

If you plan to live the rest of your life in Marion County, you might look down the longitudinal line on the globe to say Shawnee, Okla., or perhaps between there and the Arbuckles, because the winters there probably are more like what you’ll have in the future-milder and a couple of weeks shorter.

As to what has been happening, Chance Hayes, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita, said it’s part of a pattern of hot, dry conditions that actually began in July.

“It has to do with the jet stream,” Hayes said. “It drives all the weather systems before it from west to east. When it stays to the north of us, all the cold air and precipitation tends to go with it to the north leaving us with warmer, stable air. We get moisture in the air, but not the low pressure systems and disturbances to bring precipitation. We’ve been that way since July.

“When the jet stream dips back to the south, the cold air and precipitation return.”

Hayes said some meteorologists at the Weather Service are finding indications the pattern is changing, prompting 30- to 60-day forecasts that show the Kansas weather pattern returning to normal temperatures and precipitation.

He said the jet stream is a narrow high-altitude wind at around 25,000 feet above sea level traveling at times in excess of 250 mph. It meanders up and down, acting like a rough roller-coaster conveyor belt that drags weather systems with it.

Hayes added, “The jet stream is the driving force behind the creation of all our weather systems.”

The problem with predicting what the jet stream will do, or what long-term weather may become, is the complex interaction of all the factors that go into creating the jet stream, Hayes said.

He said factors include solar energy, which cycles according to activity on the sun, the magnetic patterns of the earth and nearby bodies, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, the chemical makeup of the atmosphere and so on.

The main factor discussed in global warming is a change in the chemical makeup of the air with a higher proportion of carbon dioxide.

Hayes said there are definitely cycles involved in the factors that affect the jet stream, but defining them and their interactions into any pattern of long-term predictability is too complex to accomplish with any degree of confidence.

Hayes and Charles Rice, a researcher dealing with global warming in the Agronomy Department at Kansas State University, agreed with the premise that cycles may be much longer than an individual’s lifetime or even the length of recorded history in Kansas.

Rice said one thing we do have is “measurable and incontrovertible evidence” of the increase in carbon dioxide. Scientists have arctic-ice core samples with the trapped carbon dioxide and other gases in them over hundreds and thousands of years of ice deposits showing what the makeup of the atmosphere was at each time.

Rice, who specializes in how global warming will affect crops and soils, said carbon dioxide has increased by 50 percent in the last century with most of the increase coming since 1950. The ice samples reveal that carbon dioxide levels stayed stable until now.

He reviewed some of the basic facts about carbon dioxide. In respiration, all plants and animals on earth breath in oxygen to release energy from carbohydrates, and release carbon dioxide as a major component of the “waste” from this chemical oxidation process in exhalation.

In another oxidation process, when fuels are burned, carbon dioxide also is released. Rice said the largest amounts of carbon dioxide released in the history of life on earth are a result of the burning of fossil fuels for heating, industrial use and the internal combustion engine.

The main process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere is photosynthesis-the chemical process by which green plants use light energy from the sun to combine carbon dioxide, water and soil nutrients to make all carbohydrates and proteins and all food used on earth, while releasing oxygen.

Much of the carbon, Rice said, ends up decomposing from plants and animals into the compounds that make up organic matter in the soil.

Much of Rice’s work involves research on what crops and farming practices will “sequester” or store the most carbon in the soil to help counter-act global warming. The loss of plant growing area, especially major oxygen-producing, carbon dioxide absorbing areas, such as the South American rain forest, upsets many people hoping to halt warming.

Rice noted that in millions of years of time, in the pressures exerted by geologic processes, carbon from plants and animals was transformed into our fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas. When the fuels are recombined in burning with oxygen and carbon dioxide, a compound of carbon and oxygen, is released, it is like releasing the long-term storage from photosynthesis in a very short time.

Rice said carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs heat from the sun and helps store it better than many gases, so an increase in carbon dioxide keeps the earth warmer.

“Some of this is good,” Rice said. “If we didn’t have carbon dioxide and the mass of the atmosphere trapping and storing heat, we would become very cold, like Mars.”

Compared with the levels of other major gases in the atmosphere, the amount of carbon dioxide seems small. Rice said the air averages 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. By comparison, the air contains only .03 percent carbon dioxide.

Without this carbon dioxide, plants wouldn’t produce food, and all animals would starve. While too much could become a problem, Rice said it does seem to be a small amount to hang the survival of life on.

A major stabilizing factor is that nearly 100 times as much carbon dioxide is dissolved in ocean water as is present in the air, making the oceans a stabilizing factor.

When Rice and other scientists look at the computer models for the possibilities of what could happen with global warming, a factor that affects it a lot is the amount of moisture to enter the air.

Rice said lakes in Canada aren’t freezing over like earlier in history, glaciers are melting, and polar ice caps are expected to melt more rapidly. Many predictions have oceans expanding with the melt to cover large areas inland.

Rice said: “With more moisture, you get more cloud cover, more rain, more snow, more cooling effects. There’s a lot of controversy over what the real impact will be.”

Recent news stories even have dealt with the idea that ice ages have been preceded by major warm periods, throwing more moisture into the air to accelerate cool-down. The stories say this is especially true if major snowfall accumulates. Along with melt-downs, there’s concern about chill-down in Antarctica.

Factors like volcanos also contribute to temperature change as they throw particles into the air to block and reflect sunlight. Rice said chemical makeup of the gases from volcanos would vary without any appreciable release of carbon dioxide.

So what’s the most likely scenario?

Rice believes: “For us in Kansas, we’ll get a degree or two warmer. That may not sound like much on a scale where we’ll still get temperature fluctuations in season from over 100 degrees to below 0 degrees.

“But we’ll have more short droughts. When they happen, we’ll have higher-intensity thunderstorms, heavier rain and more potential for severe weather. Our main benefit will be longer growing seasons.

“Crops may change. Wheat and milo will still do OK, but droughts may make it difficult to grow corn. The corn belt will shift further north. North Dakota and Canada may become corn-growing areas.”

The idea of following the longitudinal line south from your point 200 or more miles probably is a valid rule of thumb to see what your climate might become, Rice said.

To the question of when it will happen, the experts reply that we’re in transition now. One warm winter doesn’t signal climate change, but Hayes said, “It’s a sign of things to come.”

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