Steven P. Roberts

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What Is the Dynamic, Volatile Era?

The dynamic, volatile era is an era of extreme weather resulting from human-induced climate change. Over the last decade, the weather has become increasingly dynamic and volatile. According to author Bill McKibben, storms have become more powerful than they used to be. Scientists say we are seeing more heavy precipitation events. Meteorologists have noted a great upturn in the frequency and intensity of thundersnow events. Kerry Emanuel says that hurricane intensity is increasing in all hurricane-spawning regions. All of this is owing to increased atmospheric dynamicism.

When the stock market goes up and down like a yoyo, the markets are said to be volatile. Likewise, the atmosphere is becoming more volatile. In one place, it's very wet, while in another place, it's bone dry. There has been a marked increase in the incidence of drought and deluge since the 1990s. The globe may be getting warmer, but temperatures are all over the place. In one place, it's cold, while in another place, it's very warm or hot. Our barometers are all over the place, as we have a mountainous high in one place and a deep area of low pressure in yet another place. All of these pressure, precipitation and temperature polarities are the manifestations of atmospheric volatility.

One may be inclined to think that these are all isolated occurrences of random variability that have nothing to do with one another. However, as Dr. Heidi Cullin puts it, the drought in California and the cold weather and big snows in the East are interconnected. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of Arctic sea ice loss resulting from Arctic warming. The warming of the Arctic has caused a slowing of the jet stream. When the jet stream slows down, it meanders to the north and south. Where the jet stream bulges to the north, you have a ridge. Where the jet stream buckles to the south, you have a trough. Ridges feature warm, dry conditions, while troughs feature cold, wet conditions.

The ridges and troughs in our increasingly wavy jet stream pattern foster the elements of dynamicism and volatility previously mentioned.

Dynamicism is energy; volatility is instability. We are energizing and destabilizing the atmosphere concurrently. When you energize an increasingly unstable system, chaos results. As we make the atmosphere more dynamic and volatile, weather will become more extreme.

On day three of the 2013 National Climate Summit, on February 17th, Dr. Jennifer Francis gave a talk on extreme weather and climate change. At the beginning of this talk, she listed all the terms that people use to describe the extreme regime: "unprecedented," "global weirding," "weather madness," "Hell and high waters," and "a new state."

There is no really good nomenclature in place to describe this crazy weather regime. I propose that we call the regime of weather extremes "The Dynamic, Volatile Era."

Over the last decade, our weather has become increasingly dynamic. During that same period of time, the weather has also become more volatile. These elements of dynamicism and volatility will be our meteorological lot in life for the next several decades, if not longer.

Global Warming and Dynamic Volatility

If you were to cut the Earth in half and look at its cross section with the atmosphere applied to it, you would see a cross section of a sphere that looked like the cross section of an apple. The Earth itself would be the flesh of the fruit; the atmosphere would be the peel of the apple. That is a very small layer of air covering the surface of the Earth.

When we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we allow the atmosphere to more effectively trap the radiant energy of the sun. Now the atmosphere is being given more energy than it can physically accommodate. Because of the inability of the atmosphere to accommodate the increasing amounts of energy that are being put into it, the weather is going crazy.

There are two ways in which energy can be dealt with in the natural world. That energy can be spent in an effort to facilitate a process, such as the development of storms, or it can dissipate. Energy dissipates as heat radiates back into space.

Because we are undermining the atmosphere's ability to dissipate the energy that is being put into it, the atmosphere will have to expend that energy through the production of extreme weather events. Those extreme weather events will occur more often and be more dramatic as the amount of energy put into the atmosphere increases.

If we took a five-gallon container of water and heated it to 100 degrees, that mass of water could very easily accommodate the energy that was being put into it to bring it to 100 degrees.

However, if we applied the same amount of energy to a one-gallon vessel of water, that water would boil vigorously, or even boil away, because the one gallon of water did not have the physical capacity to accommodate the amount of energy that was being added to it. The atmosphere cannot boil away or change phase in any way. The inability of our atmosphere to accommodate the rapidly increasing burden of energy being added to it will result in weather such as we have never known.

Another way of looking at this is to look at the thermodynamic processes that allow fire to spread in a brick building. A flammable substance is touched off. The fire spreads, generating more heat as it spreads. As the fire grows, it allows more fuel to reach the flash point, the temperature at which combustion commences. Eventually, the amount of heat being built up within the building will reach such a great level that the building's size cannot accommodate the addition of any more heat. Because of the inability of that thermal energy to dissipate, it must be spent somehow, and the means by which that expenditure takes place is through explosions. These blasts are nature's attempt to rapidly expend large volumes of pent-up energy that could not be dissipated through natural means.

The greenhouse effect undermines the atmosphere's ability to dissipate energy. Because of the inability of the atmosphere to dissipate energy, it will have to be expended violently. The warmer we make our planet, the more energetic our atmosphere will become, and the more extremely our weather will behave. Most scientists say that in the future, the frequency and magnitude with which extreme weather events will occur will greatly increase. Welcome to the wild and crazy weather of the dynamic, volatile era!

Crazy Weather and Climate Change

To most people, the extreme weather resulting from climate change just doesn't make any sense. This is because extreme weather occurs on varying time and geographic scales. As if that weren't enough, extreme weather is all-inclusive. To demonstrate this point, we will look at two radically different manifestations of extreme weather.

In the winter of 2010, a succession of big storms buried the eastern United States under feet of snow. These great dumpings of snow came to be known as "snowpocalypse." During the summer of that same year, a mega-heatwave cooked Russia and the Baltic states. That heatwave claimed over 50,000 lives and cut crop yields by 25%.

What do blizzards in the eastern United States have to do with a mega-heatwave in Russia and the Baltic states? One may be inclined to think that these two radically different weather extremes have nothing to do with each other. That, however, would be wrong. Both of these weather extremes had their basis in climate change. The blizzards that buried the eastern United States were helped along by a huge trough that provided lots of cold air and upper-level support for the storms that hit the region. The mega-heatwave in Russia and the Baltic states was the product of a persistent ridge that kept those places very hot and extremely dry. Heat and drought were co-conspirators in that great disaster of 2010.

Climate change makes these kinds of events more likely for a couple of reasons. First, climate change makes the ridge in Russia and the trough in the eastern United States more likely to occur. Second, global warming accelerates the hydrologic cycle, making drought and heavy precipitation events more likely.

Extreme weather and climate change sound like an overt attempt by climatologists to play both ends against the middle. As National Center for Atmospheric Research Climatologist Kevin Trembirth puts it, extreme weather is the way in which climate change expresses itself. When a child develops a high fever, that child may go on to have seizures (known as feveral seizures) that result from the high temperature. In terms of climate change, global warming is the fever, and extreme weather events are the feveral seizures.

As we progress into the dynamic, volatile era, the weather will become increasingly extreme, and those extremes will occur with much greater frequency. If you think the weather of the last decade has been crazy, you haven't seen anything yet.

U.N.H. Climatologist Cameron Wake calls this the "weather whipsaw," and we have only just begun to warm the weather whipsaw up. Crazy weather and climate change will become increasingly important aspects of our climate change future, whether we like it or not.

The Weather and the Jet Stream Rollercoaster

As the Arctic warms, the temperature disparity between the Arctic and the middle latitudes decreases. This causes the jet stream to slow down. A more slowly flowing jet stream will meander to the north and to the south. When the jet stream bulges to the north, you have a ridge. When the jet stream buckles to the south, you have a trough. The ridges and troughs in our wavy jet stream look like the undulating rails of a rollercoaster as seen from the side.

Cold air pools in troughs; warm air fills ridges.

As the climate changes, the jet stream will become increasingly wavy. The ridges and troughs in our increasingly wavy jet stream flow are becoming increasingly amplified. In other words, ridges are bulging farther to the north, and troughs are digging farther to the south. As the jet stream becomes more amplified, weather systems will travel more slowly around the northern hemisphere.

The ridges and troughs in our wavy jet stream flow set up blocking patterns within the atmosphere. Blocking patterns are self-stabilizing atmospheric states that are prone to persistence. A blocking pattern can set up for days or even weeks. The ridges can't move because there is a trough on either side of them. The troughs cannot go anywhere because there are ridges blocking their movement from both sides. The ridges and troughs tend to move very slowly, and they are difficult to break down.

The troughs in our wavy jet stream pattern foster the development of storms, some of which can be quite powerful. As the Earth warms, these storms will drop heavier rainfall, resulting in severe flooding.

Another aspect of the increasingly wavy jet stream pattern is the production of cutoff lows and blocking highs. Scientists have noticed that both cutoff lows and blocking highs have become much more prevalent over the last decade.

A cutoff low is a low pressure area that gets cut off from the jet stream flow. Because the low is separated from the jet stream, it sits in place for hours or days. On October 21-23, 2014, a cutoff low parked itself over the northeast United States, dumping five to six inches of rain in parts of Massachusetts.

A blocking high is an area of high pressure that blocks the forward motion of weather systems. Blocking highs block weather systems in one of two ways. First, they divert weather systems, causing them to travel in ways that they would not normally go. A blocking high in the North Atlantic deflected Superstorm Sandy, bringing about that left hook into the northeast United States.

Second, they block the forward motion of storms, causing those storms to stall out. During the superstorm of December 11-13, 1992, a powerful storm stalled to the east of Virginia for two days because it was blocked by an area of persistent high pressure up in eastern Canada.

Scientists have noticed that high pressure areas are becoming bigger, stronger and more blocking. As the dynamic, volatile era progresses, we will see a lengthy series of standoffs in the atmosphere between powerful storms and persistent blocking high pressure areas of great strength. These highs will block storms moving from the west by impeding their movement to the east. Blocking highs will cause coastal storms moving up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States to be blocked to the north or to the east. Either way, the result will be protracted trouble.

Volcanic Cooling and Climate Change

Many people believe that a big climate-altering volcanic blast is the panacea for human-caused climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cooling caused by volcanic eruptions fosters a sense of climate change complacency that allows us to unknowingly make the problem worse.

To demonstrate this principle, we will use a television set. The audio signal will be the function that we alter. If you mute the television's audio signal, you will override any and all modifications in the power of the audio signal. The activation of the mute function is similar to the cooling impact of a climate-altering volcanic blast.

Let's say that you elevate the power of the audio signal by just four bars to simulate the level of warming resulting from four years of greenhouse gas emissions into the air, and you deactivate the mute function. The audio signal would be just a bit stronger than it was prior to the activation of the mute function. A major volcanic eruption mutes the greenhouse signal, while human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are adding strength to the greenhouse signal. When the muting influence of the volcanic blast has passed, the greenhouse signal will be just a little bit stronger, because our emissions added strength to the greenhouse signal during the time when the signal was being muted.

Volcanism could cause kickback climate change. Some headache remedies will give you relief from migraines, only to result in your getting a bigger headache later on. That second headache is what doctors call a "kickback headache." A large climate-altering volcanic eruption may cool the globe by one degree for a few years. Now, let's say that a succession of volcanic eruptions sustained that level of cooling for a period of 20 years, during which time we built another 0.5 degrees of latent greenhouse warming into the climate system. When the skies clear, and all that additional greenhouse warming is unveiled, the world would warm by 1.5 degrees, because you would be exposing the pre-existing warming as well as the additional latent greenhouse warming that was built into the climate system during this hiatus in the warming process. A rapid release of that much warming could have profound climatological consequences the world over. In this respect, the additional greenhouse warming will deliver kickback climate change to the world and its people.

Volcanism may bring about extreme weather that goes beyond that of the dynamic, volatile era, because the aerosols released into the atmosphere will take the climate further out of balance than it already is. In other words, the volcanic eruptions of the future may douse the blaze of global warming while fueling the fires of wild weather.

Volcanism cools the lower atmosphere and warms the upper atmosphere. Scientists postulate that the polar vortex of the winter of 2013-14 was caused by upper atmospheric warming. The upper atmospheric warming caused by volcanism may be just enough to trigger a resurgence in the chill resulting from the polar vortex.

A Coming Surge in Extreme Weather

Over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a marked increase in extreme weather events. While extreme weather surged, the global warming process had actually slowed, a process that scientists call "the global warming hiatus." How can a surge in extreme weather coincide with a slowdown in the global warming process?

The answer rests with a process called the extreme weather paradox. The extreme weather paradox is a result of the sensitivity of the weather to human-caused climate change. A little global warming will result in a disproportionately large increase in extreme weather.

Global warming is the catalyst for climate change. As the Earth warms, the ice fields melt, the oceans warm, and there are changes in the land such as drying. These are all components of the climate system that are modified as a result of human-caused climate change. The changes that are occurring within the components of the climate system mean that their ability to influence the climate will also change. For example, warmer oceans will release more heat and moisture into the atmosphere, which will alter the climate. Over the last decade and a half, the Earth warmed enough to bring havoc to the weather of our world.

Over the next 15 years, the warming of the Earth will accelerate, resulting in a surge in extreme weather. In its fifth assessment on climate change, released on September 27, 2013, the IPCC said that they were 95% certain that humans were the cause of climate change. They also said that the Earth has warmed more slowly during the last 15 years, due to natural short-term climate variability, but that was just a speed bump on the road to a warmer world. When we get by the speed bump, the warming will accelerate.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, certain changes will take place that will boost the Earth's temperature. First, we will go beyond the speed bump on the road to a warmer world. This will result in an acceleration in the global warming process.

Second, we will reduce sulfur dioxide levels within the atmosphere. By lowering aerosol loads, we expose latent greenhouse warming. This could take temperatures up by perhaps a quarter of a degree Celsius.

Finally, the carbon dioxide that was released into the air during the roaring 1980s will begin to realize its full warming potential. It takes 40 years for the warming effect of carbon dioxide to fully impact the climate system. During the 2020s, we will realize the full extent of warming caused by 1980s carbon dioxide emissions. When all these factors are taken together, the world may warm by 0.3-0.5 degrees C in the next 15 years.

Although this may not sound like very much, it is enough to engender a surge in extreme weather. Over the next 10 to 15 years, we will see a spike in the frequency and magnitude of deadly heat waves, droughts, and wildfires. There will also be a surge in the frequency and magnitude of floods, blizzards, and powerful storms of all kinds. It would not surprise me in the least to see a recurrence of Superstorm Sandy. If you think the weather of the last 15 years has been extreme, wait till you see the weather in the next 15 years.

Mega-Scale Millennial Events

There was once a time when a 100-year weather event was an nth-level weather event. Most people will only see a 100-year blizzard or 100-year flood once in their lifetimes. A 100-year weather event is an event that is so spectacular and rare that it has a one in 100% chance of occurring in any given year.

That means, in 25 years, you have a one in four chance of seeing the recurrence of a 100-year weather event. In 50 years' time, you have a 50/50 chance of seeing that event recur. In 75 years, you have a three in four chance of seeing that 100-year event recur.

As Dr. Frank Colby of the University of Massachusetts in Lowell puts it, the one in 100-year event is not statistically fixed. You could have two 100-year events in five years' time, or you could see 150 years elapse between events.

Because of the increasingly crazy weather resulting from climate change, 100-year weather events are no longer nth- level weather events. Climatologist Dr. Heidi Cullin says that 100-year weather events are occurring with twice the frequency that they did in the past, and they will become more frequent as the climate changes and as weather becomes more extreme.

During the summer of 2003, Europe sweltered through its hottest summer in at least 500 years. This heatwave smashed temperature records throughout Central and Western Europe. When all was said and done, 30,000 people died of the horrible heat. This scenario was run through a climate model to determine the likelihood of occurrence. Climate modelers have determined that this heatwave had a one in 1,000 chance of occurring under normal climate conditions featuring no additional greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

In the year 2010, another mega-heatwave occurred. This scorcher cooked Russia and the Baltic states, killing more than 50,000 people in the process. The heatwave coincided with a severe drought, resulting in a 25% reduction in crop yields in the area. This heatwave was said to be the worst in 500 years. Climate analysis of both heatwaves suggests that greenhouse warming doubles the likelihood of such heatwaves. In other words, the 2003 and 2010 heatwaves were 1,000-year weather events under normal climate conditions.

According to Elizabeth Howell, Live Science contributor, on July 12, 2013:

Hurricane Sandy's devastating storm track is a rare one among hurricanes; a new statistical analysis estimates that the track of the storm—which took an unusual left-hand turn in the Atlantic before slamming into the East Coast—has an average probability of happening only once every 700 years.

According to Charlie Brennan and John Aguilar, staff writers for the Boulder Daily Camera, on September 9-17, 2013, Boulder, Colorado had a 1,000-year rainfall event that yielded a 100-year flood. The area picked up eight inches of rain from a low that parked itself over the Utah Basin. No area was more severely impacted than Lyons, CO.

The dynamic, volatile era has brought us three 1,000-year events up to this point, and we are only at the beginning of the extreme regime. Dr. Jennifer Francis has said that the weather will become more extreme more often as we go into the future.

A mega-scale millennial event is most likely to occur during an El Niño or La Niña, as dynamicism and volatility are enhanced during those two phases.

It is my personal opinion that we will see a string of mega-scale millennial events over the next few decades: events that are so extreme that they would occur only once every 1,000 years under normal climate conditions. If the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events increases enough, we could be impacted by weather that would occur every 1,500-2,500 years under normal climate conditions.

A Parting Thought for All to Ponder

The human race is forcing the climate into a warmer state at great speed. However, the extent to which the climate will warm over the next seven to eight years is very small. It is for this reason that politicians are reluctant to act against climate change. A two-term politician will be in office for eight years, during which time very little warming will occur.

If you were to look at the number of extreme weather events owing to human-induced climate change that will occur over the next seven or eight years, the number would be quite high. Even though the extent to which climate changes over the next seven or eight years will be very small, the impact of human-caused extreme weather events will be great.

It is my opinion that the dynamic, volatile era affords scientists, science writers and science journalists the capacity to leverage the climate change message in a way that allows them to have maximum impact when delivering their message to the population at large and to the politicians who serve them.

To read more about the dynamic, volatile era and other aspects of weather and climate, read The Whys and Whats of Weather (C 2014), by Steven P. Roberts.

In e-book and print from Amazon.com and other online sellers. For details, click here.

If you are reading this article somewhere other than on Steve Roberts' website, please go to http://www.dvorkin.com/stevenproberts/ for details about his books. In addition to the weather book listed above, he is the author of the novel The Great Winter Hurricane (C 2015).