The Polar Vortex Is Baaack

(Sorry about no posting last week. I was in the hospital, but I’m feeling much better now, thanks more to Barbara’s care, in the face of major infirmity herself, than anything else. This was my intended posting a week ago, so I’ll just jump in here as if everything had skipped a week.)

The phrase that became famous last year appears to be with us again. It’s not a new phenomenon, though. First described in 1856, there are actually two vortices, one at the North Pole and one at the South.

The northern one is most noted because of its recent tendency to bring cold air down to lower latitudes making for cold winters. It’s this one that most of us think about when we hear the term.

The one in the south is the home of the ozone hole, although few of us know this, nor are we apt to know the ozone hole persists to this date, although it has stopped growing since the worldwide ban on chlorofluorocarbons in the Montreal Protocol treaty of 1989. The account of the Protocol given at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montreal_Protocol is more than a little interesting.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the observation that the restraints on diagnosing the problem and seeing if the solution is actually working or not is really pretty typical. We think we are now doing the right thing to counter a very serious problem first recognized prior to 1989, but, despite our thinking we have found a fix, we are only now beginning to know whether the fix is working or not, some 25 years later. Since fighting the monied powers of Dupont delayed the admission of the problems true significance by at least twenty years, and the solution we are now so proud of appears to have negative greenhouse gas consequences of potentially even greater impacts, it’s not clear whether we are looking at a step forward or maybe five or ten backward.

There is much about planet earth we don’t understand and the atmosphere is particularly mysterious. What are the limits on the fluctuations we may see in the polar vortexes? Is it possible for the two vortices to merge to become only one centered on the equator rather than the two centered on the poles, as they are now? If that were to happen, as appears to be similar to conditions on Venus today, do we have much of a handle on what the long term impacts of global warming might be? How does global warming play out in vortex behavior?

One of the biggest barriers we face in trying to understand the dynamics of the atmosphere is time scale. At least so when we also consider the disparity in physical size between us and the planet. Clearly, differences in size come with differences in times required for processes to run their courses. The Earth is so large that estimates of the global impacts of climate change have little option other than to be guesses.

Paleontologists have looked through the record of earth contained in its existing rock and ice, using very sophisticated tools, trying to get a good handle on what kind of prior variation in temperature and atmospheric content might tell us about what to expect this time, as we approach rapid changes in these commodities. But there is limited ability to do that.

The most glaring problem is, ironically, the issue of how rapidly the new changes are coming. All previous changes of magnitudes comparable to those we are now facing have taken place over time frames of apparently incomparable length. To find analogues for a problem eons in the making in the past with modern problems that develop over a matter of decades today is going  to be controversial if not totally absurd.

Perhaps most startling of all, though, is the virtual unanimity of the alinement of monied interests behind the “what, me worry?” position. Surely at least some of our leaders must see the value of much more cautious approaches to such dangerous ground.

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