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Feel like 2016 was an unusual year for weather? You’re not alone. The steadily frigid winters of old are quickly becoming a remnant of the past, while scorching summers and torrential downpours become the new norm on a planet in upheaval.
2016 was the hottest year since scientists began compiling data in 1880. 2017 is expected to be even hotter as temperatures show no sign of dropping, pointing to a precarious future with the earth not being this warm in over 100,000 years.
The unprecedented global weather patterns are being fueled by accelerated melting of the polar ice cap in Greenland and northern Canada, causing fresh water to pour into the Atlantic Ocean, which is dramatically weakening the jet stream, according to a report released by the World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday. This new, weaker jet stream is responsible for the heat waves, droughts, flash floods, and unpredictable weather. Although the severe weather we saw in 2016 was also influenced by the El Niño.
Weakening Jet Stream
Jennifer Francis is a professor and Arctic climate expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. She says the earth is entering “uncharted territory” and there’s no looking back.
“These rapid changes in the Arctic are affecting weather patterns where you live right now,” Francis told the Guardian. “In the past, you have had natural variations like El Niño, but they have never happened before in combination with this very warm Arctic, so it is a whole new ball game.”
Unlike the ice shelf in Antarctica, melting ice in the Arctic exposes a dark ocean, which attracts sunlight and creates a double-warming effect. This means the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet, leading to less variance between the far north and lower latitudes which degrade the integrity of the jet stream.
The jet stream forms a vital boundary between cold air to the north and the warmer south with separation reliant on winds up to 250 km, 8 km above ground. However, a warm Arctic means weaker winds, causing the jet stream to go off course with big loops forming, evidenced by the polar vortex phenomenon. The loops can linger for weeks and cause either sweltering heat or Arctic cold, creating conditions for an environmental disaster that either occur in an instant or create a domino effect for a crisis in the future.
“The Arctic may be remote, but changes that occur there directly affect us. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet is already contributing significantly to sea level rise, and new research is highlighting that the melting of Arctic sea ice can alter weather conditions across Europe, Asia, and North America,” Emily Shuckburgh, Head of Open Oceans at the British Antarctic Survey told the Guardian.
In the U.K., flash flooding in the spring are causing millions in damages; a 2010 summer flood in Pakistan killed 2,000, and a heatwave in 2010 killed 50,000 and wiped out $15 billion in crops. All a direct link to the shifting Northern Hemisphere climate.
Effects on North America
Toronto, Ont., is already experiencing sweltering summers and mild winters, however, summer temperatures could reach 44 C (111 F) by 2050. Although heat waves take a toll on the elderly, infants and the sick, it’s flash flooding that concerns Torontonians the most.
In July 2013, 126 mm (5 inches) of rain dumped on the city in a matter of hours; Toronto averages just 75 mm of rainfall for all of July. Subways were flooded, cars were submerged, and the storm left thousands without power.
Countless homes were also flooded with water up to residents’ knees.
“I’ve never seen anything like it [flash flood] in my whole career,” Chris Cavan, Vice-President at City Wide Group, a Toronto-based basement waterproofing company. “There were so many homeowners that had no idea their home was on a flood plain and many had never experienced any flooding in the decades they had lived there. It was a wake-up call for the City and homeowners that measures to combat climate change and protect the homes of residents are desperately needed.”
Climate change not only affects regions but creates economic reverberations, according to Blair Feltmate, the director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ont.
“If it shut down the financial district for an extended period of time or shut down the head offices of major corporations, the cascading negative effects of that would be felt across the country,” Feltmate said.
Significant investment by the three levels of government in countries around the world are still ill-prepared for the effects of climate change, as well as obstruction by deniers, are preventing a global coalition beyond a carbon tax. Quantitative data and mapping show irrefutable evidence of a global crisis that will only get worse if measures are not taken sooner rather than later to convert to renewable energies and breaking ground on infrastructure projects to hold impending crises at bay.