POSTED ON AUGUST 10, 2011:
Wake Up Call
Weather extremes demand local action
Have you ever watched "Midnight Sun," the lurid Twilight Zone episode in which a couple of women hold down an apartment building, in a Gotham like city, as the world's temperature goes whacky? The women are, it seems, among the few souls remaining in the building--most have died or moved to Earth's poles. Our planet, as the story begins, is being pulled ever closer to the sun with devastating consequences. Like many of Rod Sterling's storied pieces, this episode has a terminal twist. We discover one of the women, the narrator, is actually in a sick bed having a fevered dream. She awakens to a frozen world where everyone is dying from the cold with the Earth moving away from the sun.
Well, we are not in a bad dream, Tulsa. It looks like our current heat wave could be the new norm.
Sweat City and Its Consequences
We are currently witnessing an explosion of water line breaks, record-breaking water usage and a huge spike in power consumption. These past few weeks look a lot like the converse of the freakish winter we experienced this past January and February. Is climate change implicated in our streak of 100° plus days? No one can say with certainty that it's in play but there is a new effective line of analysis, a sort of climate forensics toolkit called "detection and attribution." It involves an array of data-intensive methods that rigorously outline how climate change is driving our region toward colder, more intense winters, hotter summers, shorter springs and strangely volatile precipitation levels.
I tried to talk to some of our homegrown (OU) weather guru's this week. They are among the world's best. Their summer travels defeated me but I'll try again soon. For now, I relay insights I garnered from Dr. Heidi Cullen, a celebrated climate scientist, who has worked with folks at the OU National Weather Center and is a leading professional at a research and reporting venture called Climate Center. Cullen was formerly the only climate scientist with the Weather Channel. She is a climatologist and an engineer currently serving as a visiting professor at Princeton.
She has written a new, powerful book, "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet" (2010). This work highlights the intensely local, in-your-face character, of climate change.
If you want an engaging tutorial on the entangled history of weather forecasting and climate modeling or if you are a climate skeptic open to revising your outlook, "Weather of the Future" is for you. I talked with Cullen earlier this week after reading her book.
Climate change denial may never die but the debate has little weight in earth science and atmospheric systems circles. An overwhelming consensus prevails about the sufficiency of evidence and looming dangers of global climate change. Cullen's deceptively straightforward contribution is that climate change is not some far off, abstract drama starring arctic ice and polar bears. She rightfully says that this epic challenge has as many facets as America's many regions and towns. It is one in which local ingenuity, regional scientific talent, local political realism and adaptive moxie will make or break communities.
Imperfect Climate Models Are Best Tools Available
Climate modeling is weather forecasting on steroids. Weather forecasting is about one day to 86-hour futures. Climate modeling is about futures that transpire over months, years and decades. But weather forecasting and climate modeling both mathematically emulate the interplay of airflows, solar radiation and energy balances on our planet. The deft thing about climate modeling is that it's being fueled by spectacular advances in computing power, an ensemble of superior software and an avalanche of new data streams that promise to produce richer, more "localizable" and more precise futures. If you think knowing about when to take an umbrella to work is great, how will you feel when you get to know how your allergies might manifest in 2020 or what Tulsa's floodplain might look like in that year??
Can We Actually Do Anything?
So what should be done locally about climate change and global warming, apart from trying to keep cool, staying inside and checking on possibly wayward relatives and pets?
Our best local economic and development future demands a massive reduction in fossil fuels use and an aggressive move to the housing, transport and denser development modes outlined in Tulsa's new comprehensive physical plan. Absent a decisive embrace of alternative energy sources, including geothermal, electric/CNG vehicles, solar, wind and advanced bio-fuels, there is nothing to look forward to but mounting average temperatures, weird precipitation and volatility.
Tulsa's role in this essential, planet spanning transformation, could be an employment-heavy, game-changing one if we can summon the political will and imagination to make the journey. There is also an array of other, more specific, things we need to do:
AEP/PSO's daily electrical allocation for Green Country is apparently a little less that 4,400 megawatts but we are being asked to conserve this week. So we need to make more effective use of power, to use stout conservation tactics and supplement conventional power with alternative. And we need a regional "smart grid" strategy, the only path to recapturing the 40-50% of power that is wasted in our ancient grid architecture.
• City Hall needs to explore analogous next-step technologies to manage our water production/distribution system as well. The Mayor's call this week for voluntary water rationing is a signpost. We are near peak water production. We'll need savvier, climate-wise management of these systems and a green upgrade strategy.
• Actively employ the fabulous scientific talent at the OU National Weather Center in Norman, a world-class shop in climate analysis and alternative energy tech. OU could help us craft a robust, hyper-local climate model, providing us with deep insight into how climate change could re-shape land use, our transportation grid, agriculture in the region and our water use, and production efforts.
• It looks, excitingly like (and I'll be writing soon about this prospect) we may have a spectacular advance in local computational capacity, a Tulsa supercomputer facility. A "super" is a transformational asset essential for modeling mid-run climate scenarios for Green Country and anticipating climate related community development, planning and infrastructure work.
• And lastly, we should revisit our social support system for helping elderly people and the poor to cope with dramatically higher summer temperatures workably anticipated by Tulsa's Community Service Council weather coalition project.
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