By Chris Steinkamp
Last year was the warmest in recorded history. But now we’re experiencing a sudden shift from the unseasonably warm temperatures of 2012 to below-freezing temperatures as we begin the new year.
We all know that what’s happening out the window is weather, not climate, but these radical shifts in temperature are likely to be more frequent due to global climate change – a long-term trend caused by increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And we’re already seeing how nature is responding.
President Barack Obama pledged in his inaugural address last week to respond to the threat of climate change. Looking at the Big Data already generated from scientific researchers from around the world, a level of insight is needed to identify and analyze extreme weather patterns such as raging fires, crippling drought, powerful storms and dramatic shifts in temperature – as well as to outline the steps needed to reduce our carbon footprint.
For instance, last July saw the most dramatic ice melt across Greenland in over a century, affecting 97 percent of the giant island’s surface. In September, the Arctic sea ice pack shrunk to its lowest level in millennia. Polar climatologists now project the complete disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice within five to seven years.
A recent report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the snow sports non-profit, Protect Our Winters, said that without intervention, winter temperatures are projected to warm an additional 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snow cover area. Snow depths could decline in the western U.S. by 25 to 100 percent. In addition, the length of the snow season in the northeast could be cut in half.
The United Nations Environment Programme has identified the ski industry, which needs cold weather and snow to thrive, as one of the most vulnerable to climate change worldwide. Stunning, snow-capped and especially glitzy Alpine ski resorts (Austria’s Kitzbuhel, Germany’s Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Italy’s Cortina, the latter two being former Olympic sites) are losing their snow. Winters in mountainous regions all across Europe and North America are getting warmer and shorter. The estimated $12.2 billion U.S. ski and snowmobile winter sports industry has already felt the direct impact of decreased winter snowpack and rising average winter temperatures. It’s said that both have cost the resort industry $1.07 billion in aggregated revenue over the last decade.
Climate change will spell more trouble for all small businesses that depend on winter weather and activities for their livelihoods. From snowmobiling, snowboarding, and skiing to ice fishing and snowshoeing, a wide range business sectors depend on winter-related tourism, including restaurants, lodging, gas stations and grocery stores, to name a few.
The Protect Our Winters/NRDC report states that winter tourism supports 211,900 jobs in the U.S., earning a total of $7.0 billion in wages and generating over $1.7 billion in federal taxes.
Of course, climate change is impacting far more than the winter tourism industry. We’re also seeing the impact of climate change in the agricultural industry where crop yields are negatively impacted. Think of your favorite fruits – Florida oranges, Texas grapefruit, California strawberries. Most fruit trees have to chill. Literally. They need winter temperatures to drop to within a certain range — usually just above freezing — and remain there for a set period of time. This allows the buds to go into dormancy and tolerate harsh winter weather, then reset themselves for the fruit production cycle to start again once spring comes around.
If trees don’t get sufficient chilling, they don’t bear fruit. Fruit-growing regions around the world such as Sacramento Valley in California, the Southeastern United States,Chile’s Valle Central,YunnanProvince inChina, South and Northern Africa, as well as South and Southwestern Australia, are likely to experience severe reductions in available winter chill and potentially threatening harvests.
Serious efforts and technologies to analyze extreme weather patterns caused by carbon pollution can help to offset the anticipated warming trends, lessening the impact on these industries. It’s imperative that we continue to work towards minimizing the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere. However, in addition to new technologies, analytics, and strong climate legislation, climate adaptation is also a main area of discussion since the warming has begun and won’t likely be stopped entirely.
As such, the ski industry will need to explore alternate areas of revenue, while growers and plant scientists will need to adapt their crops to changing conditions for lower chilling requirements, all while generating insight to better anticipate and understand temperature responses and changing growth seasons.
To be sure, climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the now.