Yesterday’s Tornado

I remember walking around my neighborhood in upper Manhattan without my winter coat one unusually mild January day in 1956. That night a cold front swept through and the next day was frigid. The sudden change captivated me and kindled a life-long fascination with the weather. So I was on guard as yesterday’s atmospheric violence approached, but video footage of the tornado in downtown Springfield, MA still took my breath away.

The RFC office has been located in Easthampton, MA since 2002, and I live just a couple of miles south. We had a series of nasty thunderstorms at my house, but they were nothing like the devastating tornadoes that ripped through the region just a few miles away. However, before 2002 the RFC’s office was located on the south side of Springfield’s downtown. I couldn’t believe it when I saw on video that the tornado touched down around the corner from the intersection of Main and Union Streets, the exact spot where I used to park when I was at the office! The seafood store I shopped at on my way home was destroyed. The pizzeria where I often took visitors to lunch was decimated. The flowering pear trees, whose blossoms announced May each year, were shredded. Downtown Springfield is 15 miles away from the desk where I’m typing this, but today it feels like it is right next door.

As a weather buff, I’ve been obsessed with climate change for decades. I understand the difference between weather (what happens at a particular time and place) and climate (general conditions in a large geographic area over a long time). I know that someone who points to a big snow storm to “prove” global warming is a hoax is demonstrating his or her ignorance. But I’m also aware that those who see climate change in a summer hot spell are making the same mistake. So how can we understand climate change and explain it accurately in a manner that makes sense to lay people.

I think of our atmosphere as a pot of simmering water on a stove. The sun is like the burner adding energy to the system. The water’s perturbations, swirls and bubbles are like our air currents, fronts and storms. The increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere acts as an insulating barrier trapping energy within the system. Injecting those gases into the air produces the same result as does putting a lid on a pot of simmering water. We know that if we don’t reduce the heat on the burner when we cover a pot, the simmer quickly becomes a boil.

That’s what we’ve been doing. More energy trapped in the system creates bigger disturbances. We see more wildly fluctuating weather that, while warmer as a whole, can also produce some startling snow and cold. We see unprecedented floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the obvious solution. Unfortunately, that’s nowhere near as easy socially, economically and politically as removing the lid from the pot. I wish I knew how to get people everywhere to see what seems so clear to me: the devastation is already upon us and it is going to get worse before it gets better no matter what we do. Given the power of the military industrial complex (the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter), and so many of our fellow human beings’ unwillingness to face the necessity of basic change, it is hard to be optimistic.

I see no choice, however, but to try. I know that we must take advantage of whatever teaching moments are present. In the meantime we must face the new normal, and I have to get used to tornadoes nearby.

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