February 10, 2009

Small Changes, Big Effects

One last bit on Australia. In an article in the UK Guardian, Tim Flannery, a scientist and climate activist who grew up in Victoria - ground zero of the fires - adds some futher perspective to the tragedy there. First, he notes that Australia, though it only contributes a fraction of the world's GHG emissions, has the highest per capita emissions in the world - mostly due to coal-fired power. Indeed, he claims that his home state has the dirtiest coal-fired power plant in the world. And he shares this bit of firsthand observation on the climate:
I was born in Victoria, and over five decades I've watched as the state has changed. The long, wet and cold winters that seemed so insufferable to me as a young boy wishing to play outside vanished decades ago, and for the past 12 years a new, drier climate has established itself... There's evidence that the stream of global pollution caused a step-change in climate following the huge El Niño event of 1998.
The theory is that a "disruptive" event interacted with long-term trends to create a new equilibrium. Not to get all Day After Tomorrow on everyone, but that's kind of scary. It suggests that we're seeing Australia's new normal: permanent drought, "desiccation of the soil, and more extreme summer temperatures." This is what climate change looks like.

He also shares some of his past experiences with bushfires and says:
I had not previously appreciated the difference a degree or two of additional heat, and a dry soil, can make to the ferocity of a fire. This fire was quantatively different from anything seen before.
Just like they warned us: small changes in initial conditions can lead to large changes in outcomes. So the next time you hear about "small" changes in global temperatures, keep in mind what's happening in Australia - because California and the American Southwest appear to be up next.

Photo by olaf141 used under CC license

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Blogger Jeff Johnson said...

By the way, same thing seems to be happening out in West Texas, where I grew up. Semi-permanent drought seems to be the new normal.

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