Floods in New England: weather, climate, and change
It's a commonplace quip in New England that if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes. In other words, our weather is very changeable. Very.
Another quip is that there are two seasons in New England, winter and the Fourth of July. In other words, winter's long and cold, and summer fleeting. Very.
Right now most of New England is in the midst of torrential rains and swollen rivers, record-setting within the last seventy years or so but not unprecedented. First we had a spring drought, and the initial rain was welcomed, but now it's "Rain, Rain, Go Away" in earnest.
Schools are closed, basements are flooded, roads are damaged, and it's still raining. My house is on a hill, and everything's still dry inside, but I hear bitter complaints all around.
A friend sent these photos from an apartment complex in New Hampshire, one of those old converted mills that are ordinarily so picturesque.
Those windows you're looking at with the water close to rushing into them are on the first floor, and the apartments they're attached to have been evacuated.
When this sort of weather happens, people--being people--search for explanations. Global warming is often blamed for all the perturbations we've experienced lately, and for all I (or anyone) knows it may indeed be so.
But I think we often forget how constant change in weather has been. That New England saying refers only to short term day-by-day and hour-to-hour fluctuations. We cling to the illusion--and it's just that, an illusion--that weather in general is stable over time, when in fact the opposite is actually true.
Our lifetimes are short enough that we don't perceive these fluctuations in climate ("weather" becomes "climate" when we speak of the long term), but scientists know they exist and theorize as to their cause. There have been many; the glaciation of the ice ages are among the most well-known and dramatic. But we don't have to go back that far in time to get an idea of the scope of climactic change; more recently there was the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.
Here's a small glimpse of some of the features of these climactic events, to give an idea of the relative speed with which the climate changed in those days, even before the massive burning of fossil fuel:
[The Medieval Warm Period lasted] from about 1000 to 1300 AD. As with the Little Ice Age, its timing and effects varied from region to region, and many experts doubt that the Medieval Warm Period was a truly global phenomenon. In East Asia, for example, temperatures were cooler.
Europe, though, enjoyed an undeniably balmy climate during the early medieval period. Agriculture flourished farther north and at higher elevations on mountains than is possible even in today's warmish climate, and harvests generally were good.
Farmers raised wine grapes in England 300 miles north of present limits, and in what now are icebound parts of Greenland, Norse settlers grazed sheep and dairy cattle. In his book Climate History and Modern Man, H.H. Lamb noted that the great burst of cathedral-building and population expansion in medieval Europe coincided with the peak of the Medieval Warm Period.
By about 1400, the climate had cooled to temperatures comparable to today. Over the next century or two, the world would cool still further, bringing on the Little Ice Age.
...Some mark its inception as early as the 1200s, others view the Little Ice Age "proper" as beginning around 1450 or even later.
Disagreements arise because the phenomenon was not simply a giant cold snap. The cooling trend began at different times in different parts of the world and often was interrupted by periods of relative warmth.
All agree, however, that it lasted for centuries, and that the world began emerging from its grip between 1850 and 1900....
That's recent; very recent indeed. Long before that, descendents of those who'd settled in Greenland in a warmer era had all died, and Iceland's population was decimated. And, as an ex-New Yorker, I find this word picture of the Little Ice Age in that city something to marvel at:
In the fledgling United States, New York harbor froze over in winter, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island.
As a child, such things fascinated me, in particular the ebb and flow of the ice ages themselves. I spent hours poring over a series of maps in the World Book Encyclopedia purporting to show the extent of different glaciations, as well as the changing shapes of the continents.
The idea that the coastline that seemed so immutable to me was only this way for a long moment in time, that all was flux, that over unimaginable aeons the very shape of the ground beneath us had altered immeasurably, that seas had appeared where mountains had been, and vice versa--all of this filled me with a sense I can only describe as wonder. That the world was far stranger than I could ever imagine, and in ways I could never understand, seemed just about right.
[NOTE: Speaking of change, here, for your viewing pleasure, are some animated drawings of the movements of the continents over time.]