Monday, January 14, 2008

Mother Nature's Deeper Mood Swings

Over the weekend the press reported findings from the University of New Hampshire showing that since the 1970s Northeast winters are warming and snow cover has been decreasing. The results are the work of a masters student in Earth sciences and geochemical systems, Elizabeth Burakowski.

Though the most striking of the results applies to winters in New England, the trends seem to apply to the Northeast in general and confirm the sentiments of some long time residents.

This research serves as another of many signals that we need to pay greater attention to preventing and adapting to climate change.

Two facts of this news strike me as very interesting.

First the Associated Press quotes Parker Riehle, president of the trade association Ski Vermont. Riehle says, “We've seen some erratic winters in recent years. The mood swings of Mother Nature, perhaps, are deeper than they used to be."

I’m always looking for ways to better describe what climate change means and how the layperson can better grasp the changes that are likely in store. This quote is particularly clear. It is good at describing that not just warming but the variability in temperatures are of concern.

Temperature variability can affect nature and our systems in many ways. A few quick hypothetical (and relatively non-catastrophic, but nonetheless relevant) examples:

- An unusual three week warm spell in February tricks plants and many tree species into blooming. A sudden arctic cold snap bring temperatures down into the twenties three nights in a row. The trees and plants lose their first attempt at blooming and are stressed for the rest of the year having to put out a second set of leaves and/or blossoms. This stress then makes them more susceptible to drought conditions and disease.

- A local Y embarks on an program to save energy and decrease heating costs. Their efforts for the year are set back after a series of very cold days at the end of October when the maintenance staff is prompted to turn on the boilers and get the heat up and running for the winter. The weather quickly warms back up and remains warm for more than a week or two. During this time is it easier for the staff to open the windows and let out the excess heat during the day than turn off the entire system and restart it when it becomes cold again.

The second thing that strikes me about this news is that the press picked up on the work of a masters student. I see this as good news for all graduate students out there wondering if their work will be noticed and if their idealism to make the world a better place is at all warranted. My answer would be an emphatic “Yes!”. Just look at what great research design and the support of a good department and institution can do.

CMRC’s message to non-students and environmental professionals is: “We're glad this research is out there, but let's take this to a higher level and advocate for better research at the local and regional level.”

It is CMRC's hope that universities, agencies, and institutions in our region conduct more coordinated research about long-term trends in climate change and the ways we can work to prevent and adapt to climate change at a regional level. (There is another message here - if you are a graduate student and have research to share with CMRC, don't hesitate to get in touch with us!) ….ckw

See the AP’s article at:

Find a link to Elizabeth Burakowski’s abstract and the UNH press release at:

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