How the polar vortex is affecting the American south – Eric Klinenberg Saturday 21 February 2015 11.28 EST


 Pedestrians make their way along ice covered sidewalks and streets in Nashville, Tennessee, after winter storm Octavia moved across the southern US earlier this week. Photograph: Eric England/EPA

Pedestrians make their way along ice covered sidewalks and streets in Nashville, Tennessee, after winter storm Octavia moved across the southern US earlier this week. Photograph: Eric England/EPA

This week Americans are learning firsthand about a paradox of global warming: it will generate colder, snowier weather systems, even in places unaccustomed to deep freezes. The new, man-made climate, which scientists call the Anthropocene, is ushering in an age of extremes.

The polar vortex that’s now delivering Arctic air into the United States has produced some scary, spectacular images: the mountains of snow in Boston, the ice blocks on the shores of Chicago, the frozen Niagara Falls. The residents of these places are suffering from the dangerous cold snap, particularly the homeless but also very impoverished old people, whose economic insecurity sometimes prevents them from using the heat.

And they’re likely to see more treacherous cold in coming years, because the long-term forecast for the north-east and midwest calls for a spike in damaging winter storms. That means more stress on the aging, dilapidated infrastructure of older cities and suburbs; more maintenance costs for home-owners and service costs for municipalities; more disruptions of school and business schedules; more automobile accidents; more aching all around.

But in the cold calculus of climate change, people in the midwest and north-east may well be better off than those in the south, because they already have local governments that know how to handle extreme winter weather and an ample supply of insulated buildings that can hold the heat. When the same Arctic air hits Boston, Baltimore and Biloxi, those furthest South will be least prepared, and less able to adapt.

Consider the early death tolls from this week’s record-setting cold snap (albeit with caution, since official mortality counts during disasters are inconsistent and sometimes unreliable). As of Friday, Tennessee had reported eleven deaths, six from hypothermia, which is greater than the early toll in Illinois, Ohio and Massachusetts, combined. Investigators are also examining several possible cold fatalities in Kentucky and Maryland, and now another ice storm is on the way.

According to research by the geographers Kevin Borden and Susan Cutter, between 1970 and 2004 extreme cold was the second most lethal form of severe weather in the United States, ranking just behind heat waves. In those decades, unsurprisingly, cold deaths were concentrated in the Northern-most regions of the country. And they probably will continue to cluster there, since scientists expect the North to get colder winters while the South gets generally warmer as the climate changes. But that’s not the whole story: As this week’s weather reminds us, the volatile conditions associated with the Anthropocene may lead to more frequent outbursts of weird winter weather in places that don’t normally get them. And it’s notoriously difficult to protect people from extreme events that don’t seem to belong where they are.

Preparing for extreme weather isn’t only about raising awareness and changing citizen behavior. It also requires building an appropriate, resilient infrastructure for housing, transit, electricity, fuel, and communications. That’s an expensive endeavor.

Begin with the most basic way we protect ourselves from the elements: putting up four walls and a roof. In regions where residents are accustomed to cold winters, developers build well-insulated walls, install thick windows, and use powerful heating systems. In the south, where keeping the indoors cool has always been a major challenge, many houses aren’t made to withstand ferocious cold and recurrent ice storms.

Southern transit networks are also ill-equipped for whiteout conditions, as every New Englander who gets incredulous when a light wintry mix cripples Washington DC knows. City governments don’t have fleets of snowplows and tons of salt on alert throughout the winter. Motorists don’t have ice scrapers for their windshields, let alone snow tires or skills for navigating icy roads.

There are ripple effects when winter weather shuts down schools and businesses. Millions of children throughout the south depend on school for a warm daily meal, sometimes two. For them snow days are also days of hunger or malnutrition, and for their parents they are days without childcare, which can mean sinking further into poverty or getting into trouble at work. The same is true when shops and offices shut down, particularly if there is an extended crisis due to road closures or loss of electricity. We don’t have good ways to measure these impacts of extreme weather, but as the climate changes we will probably need to develop them.

First, though, we will need to do a better job naming and identifying these major winter weather events as genuine social disasters. Hurricanes get names and, if they’re significant, stories. Earthquakes get numbers on a Richter scale. Even heat waves, our great, invisible killer, are usually discrete events. But freezing weather bleeds us slowly, taking its toll over a long season of dull pain. How many people will die in this week’s record-breaking cold snap? We may never know the answer. How will we protect people from the winter storms to come, or, better, begin reversing the damage we’ve done to the environment? It’s long past time to figure that out.

Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU. He’s the author of Heat Wave, and he tweets at @ericklinenberg.

These 10 Countries Have Pledged $2.3 Billion to Fight Climate Change. The US Isn’t One of Them.


Poorer countries typically get the rough end of global warming: Not only are they more likely to feel the brunt of its impacts—like rising sea levels or increased extreme weather—they also don’t have enough money to face the problem. This split between the rich and poor has become a major source of frustration in the global fight against climate change. Put simply, some poorer countries say they are being asked to give up the rapid, fossil-fuel-powered development the rest of the world enjoyed while simultaneously being hit with the costs of a problem they didn’t create.

During the UN climate summit in New York City recently, some world leaders took the opportunity to pledge support for the Green Climate Fund, an international effort to help poor countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. But many wealthy countries—most notably, the United States—haven’t contributed yet. Here’s a rundown of how the Green Climate Fund works, and where the major gaps in funding still exist.

Article continues:

6 extreme weather events that pummeled America this summer – JOANNA ROTHKOPF SATURDAY, AUG 30, 2014 9:30 PM UTC


Research says that extreme weather is becoming more common. Here were the most devastating events this summer

6 extreme weather events that pummeled America this summer

A structure burns along Highway 41 in Oakhurst, Calif., Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. One of several wildfires burning across California prompted the evacuation of hundreds of people in a central California foothill community near Yosemite National Park, authorities said. (Credit: AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora)

In journalism school, my class received lecture after lecture on the dangers of rushing to relate extreme weather with climate change. There is no way of knowing the precise forces at play with certain meteorological events, and it is even harder to say that whatever forces were involved were caused by our warming planet. Still, extreme weather events happen and we are seeing more of them as time passes.

Slate’s Phil Plait put it best when he wrote:

Tying extreme weather to climate change is tricky. It’s not so much “this event was due to the Earth warming, which is disrupting the climate” as it is “statistically speaking, we’re seeing more extreme weather events, getting even more extreme over time.” Think of it as playing craps with ever-so-slightly loaded dice. You can’t be sure that snake eyes you threw was due to the dice being weighted, but over time you’ll see a lot more of them than you’d expect, statistically, from fair dice.

New research indicates that certain kinds of extreme events are becoming more common, and the trend is due to something called “blocking patterns.” Blocking patterns occur where particularly hot or wet weather remains trapped over a certain region for weeks at a time, causing heat waves or floods. Dim Coumou, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and an author on the paper, said, “Since 2000, we have seen a cluster of these events. When these high-altitude waves become quasi-stationary, then we see more extreme weather at the surface… It is especially noticeable for heat extremes.” At this point, Coumou acknowledges that his study shows a correlation between blocking patterns in the summer and extreme events, rather than a direct causation.

This summer, we have witnessed a number of extreme meteorologic and geologic events. Here are some of the worst in the U.S.:

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