Blue Ridge Naturalist: A Ghost of Winter Weather Past

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© Marlene A. Condon

In December my husband and I watched the Charlie Brown animated Christmas special that first came out in the sixties. We hadn’t watched it for several years, even though I’d always loved this program since seeing it in my youth.

One reason the show captured my heart was that it so accurately represented the very area where I grew up, from the several inches of snow on the ground at Christmastime to the frozen pond five minutes down the road where everyone (except yours truly) skated all winter long.

But as my hubby and I watched, both of us felt an unsettling disconnect, which really took me by surprise. For the first time ever, the frozen pond and all of the snow just no longer rang true.

My husband grew up in Virginia and never really had many white Christmases anyway. But the lingering dearth of normal precipitation in our area over most of the past decade, along with limited snow cover most years, made the snowy Christmas environment of the special seem like a figment of someone’s imagination that had no real basis in fact.

I, on the other hand, am a New England girl for whom a green Christmas was a rarity when I was growing up. On the very few occasions that it occurred, it was depressing. It just wasn’t Christmas without snow already on the ground and perhaps more of it gently falling when we got up Christmas morn!

All of my relatives still live in and around the area where I grew up. As my sister-in-law puts it, “brown” Christmases—those without snow to cover leaves, trees, and dirt—are much more the norm nowadays. Thus for those of us who have been around a while, it’s evident that the climate has indeed been changing.

Yet there are many skeptics out there who pooh-pooh the idea of global climate change. I’m sure for some folks this is simply a sign that they lack a scientific understanding of the issue, but for many folks it’s instead a sign of denial.

For years, cigarette smokers didn’t want to quit smoking so they refused to believe that cigarettes caused lung damage. Similarly, climate-change deniers don’t want to curtail their use of energy so they refuse to believe that their own actions can really bring about a change in climate.

But we can, and we do, profoundly change our world.

We wiped out the Passenger Pigeon, which went—in only 50 years—from billions of birds to none. And in addition to causing the extinctions of numerous kinds of animals around the world, we continue to badly pollute our waterways.

People used to put so much oil and trash into the Cuyahoga River in Ohio that it erupted in flames many times. The 1969 fire brought about the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because, sadly, government regulations are often the only way to get folks to do what they will not do on their own.

Nowadays the EPA has once again been forced to come to the rescue, this time to save the Chesapeake Bay. Decades after sea life began dying off and people started losing their livelihoods, the Bay remains in dire straits.

Everyone knew why this was happening and what needed to be done to fix this situation, but instead of people voluntarily doing what was right for the environment as well as fellow human beings who made their living from a healthy Bay, business just continued on as usual throughout the watershed.

Construction crews caused soil erosion, transferring soil to the Bay where it smothered plants and wiped out habitat for animals. Homeowners created huge lawns and over-fertilized them, sending so much nitrogen downriver that algae blooms were able to occur in the Bay, depleting the water of oxygen and creating dead zones. Farmers allowed the wastes from cattle and chickens to enter rivers, adding their own nutrient loads to the Bay. And developers continued to overlay the land with impervious surfaces that helped polluted water to reach the Bay.

Only now, out of desperation, are people being forced to face the results of their actions on the Bay and being made to live more in agreement with the natural world. Citizens also need to recognize, and care about, the role they play in the warming of our planet due, in large part, to burning fossil fuels and forests for energy.

This burning has resulted in an increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, with concentrations going from about 280 to nearly 380 parts per million over the past 150 years. That may not sound like much, but it’s an increase in CO2 of almost 36 percent. In chemistry and physics, a change of that magnitude in a system can have a huge effect.

It was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century that CO2 in the atmosphere acts as a blanket that limits the amount of heat escaping from the Earth. Increasing the amount of CO2 (and some other gases, such as methane) in the atmosphere thus works to increase the overall surface temperature of the planet. Indeed, global average surface temperatures have risen over the same 150-year period in which the amount of CO2 has risen.

Is this a manmade occurrence? Yes. The extra CO2 in the atmosphere can be positively identified to its source by its isotopic signature.

“Isotope” means “same type.” Carbon isotopes are carbon atoms that behave the same chemically but have different masses. The carbon released as a result of burning coal or oil has a different isotopic composition than atmospheric carbon.

There’s a phenomenal waste of energy in our society because people don’t take seriously the idea that they should tread softly upon the planet. But it makes monetary as well as environmental sense to limit energy usage. And it’s especially important if you are concerned about the future that your offspring—and theirs—will face.