It was February 13, 2017 and the temperature was 74°F… 74! It has been one strange winter. The azaleas in my yard have already bloomed, friends of mine have seen butterflies already forming chrysalis, and I have already had to deal with mosquitos; all of this in February. But, even as we talk about how warm this winter has been in the panhandle, they are having record snowfall in the Midwest and Northeast. It has been a strange winter.
It is easy to change this discussion to climate change, but we have had weird winters before. There was the winter when George Washington crossed the Delaware, apparently colder than normal for that part of the country that year. I remember as a kid having to wear a heavy coat to school in the winter and frost was on the ground most mornings – I grew up in the panhandle by the way.
In the book Sea Level Rise in Florida; Science, Impacts, and Options, Dr. Albert Hine (University of South Florida) explains why these periodic cold and warm years occur. Our orbit around the sun is not a perfect circle; the elliptical path can adjust our distance and change the amount of solar radiation we receive from Mother Sun. Then there is the wobble effect. The rotation of the Earth on its axis is similar to a spinning top, and the wobble can alter the amount of solar radiation we receive. These orbits and rotations explain the ice age and warm periods have experienced, and Dr. HIne provides geologic evidence that supports these climate change periods. The weird thing is, based on our current orbit/rotation pattern we should be in a cooling period and heading towards an ice age. But we are not, actually the last three years have been the warmest on record. So, if the stars say we should be heading towards a cooling period, and it is warming, the question begs – why?
Well, Dr. Hine suggest that it must be our activities. Man has made so many changes that have affected our planet in so many ways that some are saying we are in a period of the Earth’s history they are calling “Anthropocene”. It is hard to argue with it. Look out your window next time you are flying and see how we have changed the landscape. You cannot see these changes as you fly over the ocean, but the changes are there. Warm surface water usually overrides cooler waters at depth. The circulation of warm and cold water due to differences in density cause the currents, which cause the wind patterns, which effects our climate. The ocean is a great absorber of heat, and it is doing just that – absorbing heat, which is now reaching deeper depths. This will certainly effect the currents and the climate. Most will point at the use of fossil fuels as the change that has had the biggest impact on all of this.
So, if this is the case, what do we do about it?
Well there are models predicting what the future climate and sea levels might be, based on potential use of resources. There is nothing, at the moment, that suggest we are going to do anything different in how we use these resources so we can expect these climate changes to continue. Will 2017 follow the current trend and become the warmest year on record yet? Will flowering plants alter their cycles based on temperatures? Are rainfall patterns going to change? Will tropical species, including invasive ones, be able to colonize north Florida? I am not sure, but I think we should consider these possibilities as we plan for our future use of the landscape. Until then, we should enjoy the nice February we are having, and hope July and August are not too bad. We will see what next year brings.
If you are interested in reading more about the science of Florida’s climate, I recommend reading
Seal Level Rise in Florida; Science, Impacts, and Options. Hines, Chambers, Clayton, Hafen, and Mitchum. 2016. University Press of Florida. ISBN 9780813062891.