July 14, 2009

Isolated into our individual corners of the world, buried under daily concerns: how often can we take the time to look around at the world outside and see what is happening? We catch the headlines of the local newsfeed but rarely even our own weather. I laugh whenever someone in my presence yearns for hot weather, beach weather: "You work in an office, don't you?" Air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned indoor garage and air-conditioned office: who sets foot outside to feel what our new urban environment is really like?

In the heartland of the United States as far west as California, it is typical July warm bordering on hot and dry and stormy, with near-perfect soybean and corn growing conditions (in contrast to last year's Iowa floods) and an unusual clustering of west Pacific hurricanes. Water and power concerns are no less than they were last year, and next year will be more challenging still. The northern New England states remain cold and rainy and more spring-like than summer, but for the most part the freakish weather does not penetrate down to the more populated cities.Mammatus clouds over New York City

In much of south continental Europe, summer began much earlier than usual, with persistent daytime temperatures over 30°C and frequent, unusually severe hailstorms. In northern Europe and nearly all of Canada except the Yukon and the high arctic, summer weather has not yet started: and parts of Newfoundland have experienced frost -- in July. In Peru's southern Andes, it is a bitterly cold winter which comes in with the new El Niño: nearly twelve weeks earlier than usual, in April!

In the east Atlantic, an increased frequency of Saharan dust storms has blanketed the ocean with the Saharan Air Layer (SAL). Until this superheated dry atmospheric inversion disperses, there can be no tropical wave hurricanes: but when it finally does, it is likely they will be all the stronger for the warmer waters. In the meantime, the Sahara desert continues its slow creep south and east, with no signs of stopping.

(The Sahara itself may be the strongest visible evidence that human beings can influence the weather on a global basis for thousands of years, extending thousands of square kilometres beyond the borders of what technically qualifies as 'desert'.)

The Northwest Passage is open for shipping -- geographically, politically remains a matter of dispute. This began in September 14, 2007, for a few short days at the end of that year: but the period of ice-free water has been longer every year. Unlike the regions just south of them, the transpolar arctic regions are experiencing some of their warmest weather ever. Even the North Pole is occasionally ice-free now. For now, Canada is in a solo uphill battle with trying to preserve complete sovereignty over what it calls "Canadian Internal Waters", the waters between what are undisputably only Canadian islands: but northern waters between Danish and Russian islands are opening up too. Let's hope it does not take another Exxon Valdez, this time in fragile arctic waters, to resolve this political dispute.

Thus far, Australia has been spared: in part because it is the winter season and the summer brush fire season has not yet started. But much of the land is already tinder-dry, and the timing of the El Niño droughts will probably strike Australia perfectly in time to disrupt next year's harvests.

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