Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Extreme Weather

Extreme Weather

Last time I was in the states I splurged and picked up a $200 weather station. It measures temperature and humidity for two locations, barometer, wind, rain and UV. I’ve always been fascinated by the weather and it’s been fun to have even though the weather doesn’t change much here in Cambodia. Right now I can pretty much guarantee it’ll be 77 to 80 at night, around 82 for the high if it’s a very rainy day, 86 or 87 if it’s partly rainy and 90 to 92 if the skies are clear. The humidity will be around 80%: pretty boring in all.

We did, however, have an extreme event here in Kampot last February: almost 5 inches – 12 cm – of rain fell in about 2 hours. (I don’t know what the figures are for Kampot but Phnom Penh, which is about 100 miles distant, gets 12 inches – 30cm – in each of September and October, the wettest months.) Even for a tropical place where precipitation typically comes hard and heavy in short bursts, that was exceptional. What was special about it was not so much the event itself, that probably happens once every four or five years, but rather the timing in the middle of dry season. It might not rain once in two or three months during that time.

For comparison, Portland, noted as being a rainy place, gets about 6 inches of rain each in December and January, its wettest months, but only a trace in July. Imagine getting nearly a whole winter month’s rain in 2 hours in July!

The authorities here were puzzled by the ensuing flood, since floods generally come with an overflowing river. Kampot is on an estuary, a tidal river, and sits right at sea level so the right combination of heavy rain coming down from the nearby mountains and high tide coming in from the sea will cause the river to overflow its banks and that happens every couple of years. With a simple rain gauge they would’ve realized that with that much precipitation in such a short time, there’s no drainage system they could ever imagine that could handle that flow without flooding.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is experiencing its worst flooding in living memory. About 20% of the country is under water. That’s about equivalent to all of Cambodia or Wisconsin. Part of the problem in a developing country like Pakistan is that its mountains have been denuded of trees by people seeking firewood so the slopes no longer hold much water. In any case floods still would’ve been severe with the amount of rain coming down.

When you hear of landslides in China, they’re also largely caused by hillsides that have been deforested. When you’re living on the edge of existence and that last tree is your only source of fuel for cooking, you take it down and worry later about tomorrow. Some landslides will happen naturally regardless of the circumstances, but 90% of what you hear about is directly the result of environmental degradation.

Meanwhile, the heat wave in Russia has broken all records and destroyed millions of hectares (1 hc = 2.4 acres) of crops in the process, which has resulted in a near doubling of the world price of wheat. Moscow, which is at the same latitude as Juneau Alaska, has an average high temperature in summer of 72F – 22C. It gets an average of 5 days a year over 86F – 30C. Last year produced not one day over 86. This year it had 34 consecutive days over that temperature with several over 100 – 38C. Russia was one of 17 countries that have broken national high temperature records so far this year.

Russia has been reluctant to get behind the global warming problem, thinking, So what if it warms up a bit in Siberia, what’s the big deal for us? Problem is the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature since the industrial revolution doesn’t spread evenly. It’ll be around average, maybe a little warmer, for a time while it’s accumulating heat in one special place or another until the excess heat, when it’s released, bears down all at once.

I’ve got lots of ornamental plants in my place in Kampot, one of the reasons I love being here. I generally keep philodendrons in the shade, it just seems more appropriate for them. Every time I’ve taken one that’s been in the shade and put it in direct sun, several of its leaves are burned in an hour or two. Meanwhile, bicycling around town, I came across one that’s doing fine in direct sunlight. I’m always kind of baffled when I look at it.

You take a place like Russia where it’s almost always cool and blast it with unnatural heat that its land is unaccustomed to and it just burns up. Same with the tendency to flood: The air today holds 5% more moisture than in the past. The excess moisture accumulates in the atmosphere until when it does come down, it comes down in buckets.

Meanwhile, new coal-fired power plants are opening up somewhere in the world every day. China, probably the biggest offender, believes it has the right to reach developed status before it’s required to cut back on coal use, which is all very fine in theory, especially since America, the worst offender on the CO2 front, seems to have no will whatever to curb its excessively gluttonous and destructive lifestyle, but if everybody waits for the other guy to act, there’ll be nothing left of the planet to worry about.

China, to its credit, has also been powering ahead on solar and wind and is now the world’s biggest producer and consumer. Meanwhile the US gives far more in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry - the world’s richest, most profitable and powerful corporations - than it does to boost the alternatives. America should be embarking on a $200 billion per year crash program to convert to sustainable energy and if it takes taxing the wealthy and upper middle class to pay for it then all the better. (Geez, am I supposed to sympathize with the plight of people making $100,000 per year so much that I think it’s a great idea to give them a tax break? Should I applaud feeding the well-off while the whole edifice of government seems to be disintegrating? When so many good, solid, hardworking people in America are being kicked out of their houses, downsized out of their jobs and just generally dumped on, should I approve of throwing money at those people who are already living the good life?)

Sorry, I didn’t mean to get you all depressed and distraught over the matter of global warming but I’m a writer, what else am I supposed to do but lay it all out in words? Unfortunately, we all know the improbability, if not impossibility of any real change coming in America’s direction or the world’s for that matter. We are locked into lemming mode, hoping, once we’ve stepped over the edge, we’ll find a magic means for not crashing ourselves to pieces on the rocks below. LOL