A tipping point

Since I’ve moved to Pittsburgh, my mother and I have been comparing notes about the weather across country. It hasn’t been that long since I was in California so I pretty much have that picture already.

In California, when I was a kid, and we got to October, we knew it was still fire season, but we could pretty much figure we were in the clear. And we never saw fires like we’ve had in recent years.

I was 100-150 miles away from the Camp Fire, which mostly leveled Paradise, in 2018. Even so, the smoke was so thick you could barely see 100 yards. It was burning in November. So were the Sonoma County fires of 2017. The Kincade Fire in 2019, which I wasn’t present for, also mostly in Sonoma County, was in October.

I lived in Pittsburgh for a couple years when I was a kid in the late 1960s. Supposedly, these were heavy snow years and therefore my comparison to the present is unwarranted. But of all the passengers I talk to about the weather, none—not one—have agreed that “[e]veryone else has seen more snow over the last 10 years.”[1] They all say the weather is milder now.

And this winter has been ludicrous. There’s been hardly any snow at all. I joke to my passengers that my mother lives in terror of a Pittsburgh winter (she grew up here in the 1940s and 1950s) and gesture at all the green grass we see around us. “She’s afraid of this?”

I also don’t remember anything like last summer. For a while, it seemed like we were having flash flood warnings and severe storm alerts every day. I had missed thunderstorms in California; here in Pittsburgh, it seemed like they were a daily occurrence.

I know the fires in California are because we’ve had many more dry winters than wet ones my entire adult life. When, in the last few years, there had been rainfall like what I remember for my childhood, people talked about the storms as if they were Noah’s Flood.

The weather is different now. The patterns—these are what form climate—have changed.

The reality with tipping points is that you can’t really tell you’ve passed one except retrospectively. Then a system puts itself together differently; feedbacks that reinforced the system may now destabilize it and feedbacks that destabilized it may now reinforce it. The look is different as new emergent properties appear. And you can’t even predict emergent properties, let alone know their ultimate form until they’ve fully taken shape.[2]

So I don’t know—and no one knows—what the new climate system is going to look like. No one knows what the new ecosystem is going to look like. But there’s absolutely no excuse for denying that it’s happening.

  1. [1]Ray Petelin, “Pittsburgh Weather: Did You Really See More Snow When You Were A Kid?” KDKA, January 9, 2020, https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2020/01/09/did-you-really-see-more-snow-when-you-were-a-kid/
  2. [2]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996).

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