In a record weather year, signs of a changed world

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2021 was, for many people, the year that climate change jumped out of the future-thinking part of our brains – for concerns not yet realized – and landed squarely in the present. This is the year the extreme heat turned into forest fires, poor air quality, torrential rains and endless flash floods. No more future. 2021 was the year that climate change entered the present.

“Our climate is fundamentally altered from what older generations would remember,” said Michael Rawlins, associate director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

In a year that Boston set multiple high temperature records, not a single low temperature record has fallen. Instead, the city experienced nine days in which the coldest point of the day was the hottest it had ever been on that day of the year, dating back to the start of the historic record in 1872, according to data from the Northeast Regional Climate Center. .

And at this time of year, those warmer temperatures make it much less likely that, if snow is falling, it will stick. Just like in the Arctic, where sea ice reflects heat from the sun back into the atmosphere, snow cover in New England helps cool air in winter. But less snow in New England – like less ice in the Arctic – leads to a positive feedback loop, Rawlins explained, where warming leads to more warming, and so on.

Even for the state’s climate experts who have long studied and reported on the rapid changes brought about by global warming, this year has stood out.

A woman stood next to an aerial at an NYU base camp on the Helheim Glacier in Greenland. A growing body of research is linking changes in the Arctic to alterations in the jet stream – the river of air that moves weather from west to east – and other weather systems.Felipe Dana / AP / File

“I think the word ‘unprecedented’ has caught on this year,” said Jennifer Francis, senior scientist and acting deputy director of the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Francis is studying how rapid changes in the Arctic affect the jet stream, sometimes depositing freezing arctic temperatures in low latitudes, and resulting in weather conditions that can stay in one place for days at a time. This phenomenon, which scientists are working to fully understand, seemed to be fully visible this year.

For 18 days in February, for example, temperatures in Texas dropped to as low as 20, leading to a major systemic disaster as the power grid failed to keep up with demand. According to the state, 210 people have died, but a Buzzfeed analysis found the number to be much higher: some 700 people, killed by a weather system that seemed to come out of nowhere.

As it turned out, this was just the start of a year of extreme weather conditions that would rock the entire world, claiming thousands of lives and costing billions in damage and response. According to Steve Bowen, head of disaster analysis in insurer Aon’s impact forecasting team, 2021 is expected to be the sixth time extreme weather disasters have cost more than $ 100 billion, all that have occurred over the past decade.

Spring saw two weeks of flooding in Australia which displaced 18,000 people, followed by a devastating cold snap in France and cyclones in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh that killed more than 200 people.

Haze from the California wildfires blanketed the Boston area on July 26.
Haze from the California wildfires blanketed the Boston area on July 26.Christiana Botic for the Boston Globe

The summer ushered in more calamities, with flooding in Europe, China, Japan and the Philippines killing more than 500 people and Hurricane Ida – the fifth strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States – which has displaced 14,000 people in the eastern United States.

In August, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report about the widespread, rapid and intensive changes taking place on the planet, but in some ways it felt like a footnote, already offering scientific proof of the story play around the world.

In New England, the warming climate manifested itself in both obvious and subtle ways. June’s heat wave – the longest in nearly a century – and the wettest July in Massachusetts history were hard to miss. But most residents probably missed what was going on in the ocean.

After having a drink, finisher Rafael Vasquez doused himself with water during the June heatwave in Boston.
After having a drink, finisher Rafael Vasquez doused himself with water during the June heatwave in Boston. Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff

In June, during a normal scientific research cruise, oceanologist Glen Gawarkiewicz noticed something strange: where there would normally be fishing boats, he saw none. While chatting with the fishing community, he heard that the boats track bluefin and yellowfin tuna, which appear in abundance in areas where they normally don’t.

Recently, looking at data from the National Science Foundation Ocean Observatory Initiative, he saw why. Rings of warm water were pushed out of the Gulf Stream and encroached on the continental shelf, bringing with them higher salinity and different species of fish.

“I saw this front going offshore for maybe a week to three weeks before, but that was all summer,” said Gawarkiewicz, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that studies oceanography. coastal and Gulf Stream changes.

In a year of headline-grabbing weather extremes, Gawarkiewicz said, this is the moment that caught him off guard. This has implications for two different groups he consults: the Navy, whose submarines could be affected because sound travels differently in saltier waters, and commercial fishing.

“What I am seeing is that these extreme events are becoming more and more extreme in terms of duration and spatial extent,” he said. And the ocean – which requires a huge amount of energy to warm up and will take longer than the atmosphere to cool – tells a clear story of how climate change is altering the basic ingredients of our once planet by good health.

“It was just a sea change,” he said, “and one that I certainly wouldn’t have anticipated.”


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @shankman.

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