Notes from a Warming World: Summer 2013

Temperature Gauge

Rough Rides Ahead

Fasten your seatbelts. Airplane rides are getting bumpier as global warming causes increased mid-air turbulence, says a new analysis by scientists studying the impacts of global warming on weather systems.

The increasing air turbulence results from the impact of climate change on the jet streams – the fast, mile-wide winds that whistle round the planet at the same altitude as airliners. The study found that the frequency of turbulence on flights between Europe and North America will double by 2050 while intensity increases by 10 to 40 percent.

The jet streams are driven by the temperature difference between the poles and the tropics. Since climate change is heating the Arctic faster than lower latitudes, the temperature difference at high altitudes is increasing. That leads to stronger jet streams and greater turbulence. There is evidence that clear-sky turbulence has already risen by 40 to 90 percent over Europe and North America since 1958 – and now that’s set to increase further.

“Air turbulence does more than just interrupt the service of in-flight drinks,” says Paul Williams, a researcher at the University of Reading who led the study. “It injures hundreds of passengers and aircrew every year. It also causes delays and damages planes, with the total cost to society being about £100 million [$155.5 million] each year.” The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, examined only “clear-air” turbulence, rather than the buffeting caused by major storms, which may also become more common in a warming world.

Harvest Bounty

It’s bountiful times for farmers in Greenland. Potatoes, thyme, tomatoes, green peppers – crops more fitting for a garden in a temperate zone – can now be harvested in the land of Northern Lights, glaciers, and musk oxen.

image of livestock on arctic tundraphoto Claire RowlandWarming temperatures are boosting agriculture in Greenland.

Temperatures in the Arctic have increased by nearly twice the global average, resulting in warmer summers that allow locals to grow crops unheard of years ago. Inuit hunters are finding reindeer fatter than ever thanks to a proliferation of plants. In the country’s south, where most of the climate change can be seen, some farmers now produce hay, and sheep farms have grown in size. Some supermarkets sell locally grown vegetables during the summer.

Potatoes grown in southern Greenland totaled more 100 metric tons in 2012, double that of 2008. The government expects the region’s total vegetable production to be twice as large as the 2012 harvest. Greenland has set up a commission to study how warmer weather may help farmers replace expensive imported foods from Denmark.

True, the scale of this new agriculture is tiny. There are just a few dozen sheep farms in southern Greenland, and cows number less than a hundred. But with only 57,000 human inhabitants, the numbers to feed are also small.

“You need to put this into perspective. We used to be high-Arctic and now we are more sub-Arctic,” says Kenneth Hoegh, an agronomist and former senior government advisor. “But we are still Arctic.”

While summers are warmer, Greenland is also experiencing less rain. Some experts say that the country of ice and lakes could soon need irrigation infrastructure.

Hot for Teacher

A most welcome first! Millions of American students will finally receive lessons on climate change thanks to new science-education guidelines that were adopted by the National Research Council in April. Climate change will now be a core part of science education for middle and high school students in up to 40 states. The new standards are voluntary, but the scientists and experts in 26 states who helped develop them hope that they will bring a degree of cohesion to how the subject is taught. Surveys show that only one in five students feels well versed in the science of climate change.

The new standards come at a time when climate change denialist groups are making a strong push to limit climate-science education. Some 18 states – including seven this year alone – have considered “academic freedom acts” that allow teachers to depart from established science and deny the existence of climate change.

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