Ky. voices: Extreme weather is Mother Nature's warning

By Henry Riekert

"What do you think of this weather?" said a man in the doctor's office.

"I think Al Gore's got a lot of explaining to do," said another man. "But he's probably afraid to show his face with all this snow."

Indeed, this winter and last's are two for the record books. Frigid temperatures as far south as Key West and a conveyor belt of snow storms have climate change deniers as frisky as Jack Frost. Obviously, they don't understand the role that warmth plays in bizarre winter weather.

While it's bitterly cold in the U.S., December, 2010 was the warmest December ever in northern Canada, with some locations an astounding 30 degrees above normal. In Fairbanks, Alaska, annual dogsled races were canceled because dogs suffer heat exhaustion in 48 degree temperatures. In northern Canada and Greenland, winter now arrives two months later than normal.

Last year tied 2005 and 1998 as the warmest years on record. Record heat and drought in Russia caused widespread wildfires that left a smothering blanket of smoke over cities. Seven-hundred people died each day from the heat and bad air. Floods of biblical proportion inundated Pakistan.

Our own drought may seem a distant memory, but we still haven't replenished our rainfall deficit.

Eastern Australia has been soaked by the worst flood in the nation's history, and was then hammered by its most powerful tropical cyclone ever (hurricane in our part of the world). Wildfires are ravaging the western side of the country.

Climate scientists agree that a significant disruption in Earth's normal weather pattern has occurred. So what's going on?

What's going on is the disintegration of the atmospheric circulation that traps frigid air in the arctic in winter, called the arctic, or polar, vortex. The vortex works like refrigerator door to keep cold air in the arctic and warm Southern air out. This winter and last's saw the door missing.

It's not unprecedented for this circulation to weaken from time to time. What is unusual is the extent to which the arctic vortex has degraded. For it to do so two years in a row is rare.

Scientists are puzzled as to what's causing the polar vortex's disruption, but surmise that it's related to the disappearance of arctic summer ice and the record low amount of winter ice. With less ice reflecting the sun's warmth, the water absorbs the heat. Ocean temperatures strongly influence atmospheric weather patterns.

Warming oceans also help explain the frequency and severity of ice storms in our region and elsewhere. I remember my father telling me that ice storms were a once-in-a-lifetime event. He was right at the time: the last ice storm to strike Kentucky was in 1951, and the one before that one was in 1899. I've now weathered four "once-in-a-lifetime" ice storms, the last one the worst natural disaster to strike Kentucky.

The moral of my anecdotal stories is that snow and ice fit right in with climate change models. Climatologist's actually predicted more than a decade ago that snow and ice would increase for a period in some locations as the planet warmed.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? The burning of coal to generate electricity pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is the primary cause of climate change. It's the reason for mercury in fish and why the oceans are turning acidic, which is killing plankton and coral. Clean coal is a dirty lie, and if coal's consequences were factored in, its cost would be prohibitive.

We need another Manhattan Project to develop renewable energy, which would employ the unemployed. We need it now.

And yet, many legislative leaders deny climate change exists. Gov. Steve Beshear's administration consistently sides with coal companies; it even sued the federal government for enforcing mining laws. Even President Barack Obama is hesitant to confront the problem, as are many world leaders. If ignorance were an ocean, humans would have gills.

I know I risk sounding like the crazed street prophet shouting, "Repent, the end is near." But until citizens become concerned enough to demand action, politicians will ignore the coming calamity with grave risk to our children.

If I can't scare you, Mother Nature can.

Henry Riekert is a shepherd and a former Lexington Herald-Leader contributing columnist.