The Reality of Climate Change


Dr. James B. McClintock weighs in.

By Joey Kennedy

We’re in the first full month of spring 2018. In Alabama, we know what that can mean: We’re in the season of terrific thunderstorms, of destructive straight-line winds, of tornadoes.

My wife and I hadn’t lived in Birmingham long when we had one of these severe thunderstorm outbreaks. At the time, we lived in a condominium overlooking the city. We could see the dark clouds and fierce lightning rolling in from the northwest.

We had guests that week—my mother and grandmother—and our condo was small, so we gave them our bedroom. Veronica and I would sleep in the living room.

As the storms approached, they grew stronger. We heard what sounded like a freight train coming our way. Veronica and I turned over our couch and huddled behind it.

It made sense to us. In just about every interview of tornado survivors I’d read in the paper or heard on TV, the victim always said the tornado sounded like a freight train approaching.

We hunkered down, burying our faces in the carpet, and, above the storm outside, heard the hearty whistle of an actual freight train.

Yes, it was a literally a train that, I suppose, just sounded like a tornado.

We laughed at each other, righted the couch, and eventually drifted off to sleep. There were no tornadoes that night.

April can be a cruel weather month in Alabama. In fact, any month can be a pretty cruel in Alabama, where the weather is concerned.

My sense is the weather is becoming more extreme. I’m not a meteorologist, and some of my meteorologist friends tell me the patterns are simply cyclical. Maybe.

But we cannot deny climate change is occurring. We don’t just witness it in Alabama; we see it all over the world.

Climate science is pretty much settled on the issue. There remains some debate about how much impact humans are having on the Earth’s climate, but not a whole lot there anymore, either.

That’s one reason it’s so scary that the administrator of the nation’s Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is one of the world’s chief climate-change deniers. That’s why it is a problem that President Donald Trump doesn’t support the science of climate change but, instead, has called climate change a “Chinese hoax.”

April showers bring May flowers? Maybe, maybe not. We just don’t know anymore.

Some of the hottest temperatures on record have occurred during the past decade. That doesn’t mean we don’t also see cold weather and snow, even in Alabama. Climate change doesn’t simply mean the world is getting hotter; it means the climate is changing. Some places will see colder temps and more precipitation; other places will experience killing droughts.

We need to open our eyes. We need to stop denying what we’re experiencing firsthand. We need to be curious.

The weather is changing.

But don’t take my word. Dr. James B. McClintock, Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology at UAB, recently returned from his umpteenth trip to Antarctica where he does most of his studies. He’s also a keen observer and expert of climate change, author of the critically acclaimed Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land, published in 2012 by St. Martin’s Press (available on Amazon).

While McClintock was in Antarctica last month, I had an email exchange with him about his climate change observations on the continent.

The Trump administration may be in denial, but McClintock and other climate scientists are working to bring common sense and reason to the issue.

When McClintock first visited Antarctica many years ago, the ice around Palmer Station, his base on the continent, was stable.

“What I have noticed right off this year, compared with last year, are ample signs of the continued aggressive retreat of the glacier adjacent to our station,” McClintock said in his email. “This manifests itself in near and far-off thunder claps as ice breaks off the face of the Marr Glacier (I can hear them from my office desk!)”

McClintock and his team also hear the “thunder” when they are exploring and diving in the neighboring sea, he said. “I think what strikes me is that while the level of calving is as high next to the station as last year, I’ve heard more of these thunderclaps of glacial ice falling when we are out in the field than last year.”

These are the observations of a scientist who has been closely observing and cataloguing Antarctica—in person—for more than three decades.

“Air temperatures are warming here on the peninsula, too,” McClintock said. “The general temperature trend at Palmer Station over the past several decades is up and up. This past March 2017, a new record high was set for the Antarctic Peninsula.”

But it’s not just Antarctica. Earlier this year, temperatures in the Arctic were warmer than in central Europe.

“Recently, the North Pole was recorded with above freezing temperatures—in the winter!” McClintock said. “The loss of Arctic sea ice is troublesome for many reasons. Polar bears are but one example of sea-ice dependent species that are having serious problems. Some polar bears are now foraging on birds and their chicks and eggs because they can no longer find stable sea ice or forage on their normal diet of seals.

“It takes a lot of chicks and eggs to equal a seal,” McClintock said.

Still, McClintock isn’t all doom and gloom. “I’m a cup-half-full scientist,” McClintock said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you alone are too small an entity to make a difference. My favorite response when I get asked what we can do is respond: Vote! We need first and foremost to support candidates (Red and Blue) who show a concern for our health and the health of the planet (or care of creation, if you prefer). Walk, bike, drive a vehicle that gets high mileage or is hybrid or electric. Recycle, support nonprofits that are truly invested in land and sea conservation for all (I am a big fan of the Nature Conservancy).”

There’s much more we can do, as individuals, as well. Educate yourself on the issue with objective science, not fossil-fuel-industry propaganda. Trust your own observations. Understand that, with our weather and our world, something just isn’t right.

No doubt, McClintock is more optimistic than I am, and I’m glad for that. He’s the expert, not me.

But McClintock’s caution is worth a close listen: “Treat our Earth gracefully, as you would an injured love one.”

Follow UAB’s Antarctica web blog at www.uab.edu/antarctica.

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