Rough Winds: Extreme Weather and Climate Change

By Bryan Walker 27/09/2011

James Powell has produced a Kindle eBook, Rough Winds: Extreme Weather and Climate Change, which in brief compass links climate change to the extreme weather events increasing across the globe.  As a Kindle Single it has the advantage of being right up to date with what has been happening in the US, including the visit of Hurricane Irene. You don’t need a Kindle to read it — apps are available for other devices and I read it on my PC. It cost 99 cents!

Powell is the author of the recent book The Inquisition of Climate Science which I reviewed here. He’s a former geology professor, college president and museum director who also served as a member of the US National Science Board for twelve years. In Rough Winds he writes for the general reader. He points out that scientists have been thinking about global warming for nearly two centuries. It is one of the oldest concepts in science, recognised first in the 1820s and then refined in the 1860s and 1890s and steadily throughout the second half of the 20th century. Moreover it’s uncomplicated and incontrovertible. There’s no escape from the elemental fact that the extra CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere will cause future temperatures to be higher than they would otherwise have been. And the warmer the earth, the more extreme will be the weather.

Is the process already under way? ’Does the recent spate of extreme weather events provide enough evidence to persuade an open-minded person that human-caused global warming has begun?’ That’s the central question of the book. It’s not an idle question. In Powell’s view forty years from now no one will have any doubt that global warming is real and dangerous. The evidence will engulf our children and grandchildren. It matters if the evidence is already sufficient, measured against the risk, which is of the greatest devastation in human history, ’as though all of the disasters of the 20th century happened simultaneously’.

Powell examines the evidence under several headings. Heat is the first. He begins with the month of July 2011 in the US, listing the extraordinary number of record high temperatures, noting that many were nighttime records. Then he describes the European heatwave of 2003 and the Russian heatwave of 2010, a year in which nineteen countries and one island broke high temperature records. In many of these instances, as throughout the book, Powell doesn’t just provide figures; he tells something of what it was like for people living through the events, which strikes me as an important perspective.

Drought comes next, from the prayer-resistant drought in Texas and Oklahoma spreading west through New Mexico and into Arizona and east into the Carolinas. China suffered the worst drought in 50 years in 2011 and alternating rains in South China brought the worst flooding in 50 years. The Beijing Climate Centre: ’Rain is coming in shorter, fiercer bursts, interspersed with protracted periods of drought’. The Amazon has had two 100-year droughts in five years; if that pattern continued the Amazon would lose its function as a buffer of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Severe drought in Australia raises questions as to whether a fundamental change is occurring there.

Powell trawls on through the massive wildfires in the US and Canada, in Russia and Australia, and then to heavy rain and snow, and on to floods. Here he looks at the 2011 Mississippi flood, when the third ’100-year-plus’ storm in 18 years struck. The floods of Pakistan, Colombia, Brazil and Australia receive attention. Dr Masters of Weather Underground has tabulated the sea-surface temperatures in adjacent oceans for the great floods of 2010 and 2011 and found that in each case the temperatures were anomalously high at the same time as record flooding took place on land.

Tornadoes and hurricanes are the final two phenomena treated. In neither case is it possible to be sure about the part played by climate change, and Powell doesn’t push the evidence. But nor does he overlook such factors as, for example, the likelihood that warm ocean temperatures made Hurricane Irene wetter than normal.

Indeed he’s relatively cautious throughout the booklet with specific attributions, but he is clear that the totality of record extreme events in the past two years, of exactly the kind climate scientists have predicted from global warming, is quite enough to produce in his mind a ’preponderance of evidence’ that global warming has begun and the time to act is now. It’s the consequences of not acting that lend passion to his urging. ’Two things that people simply cannot live without — food and water — will become first more scarce, then more expensive, and then in some cases, unavailable at any cost.’ That points to war and to countries overrun with hordes of climate refugees. If sea level rises more than a metre or two, mankind will have to abandon the coasts and move inland, in the greatest migration in human history.

Don’t bet against this kind of future for your children and grandchildren, he says. Don’t play dice with the planet. It’s a sobering story he tells, not covering new ground for those familiar with the directions of the science, but gathering the material together to telling effect and communicating it engagingly. And he doesn’t hesitate to reveal how seriously he regards what he writes about. It is always helpful when people from the scientific community are prepared to speak openly of the grave fears they hold for the future if we allow global warming to continue on its present course.