Getting used to weather's new normal

This time, it was a "derecho," and none but the weather nerds ever heard of such a thing. It came through Friday night, some kind of furious electric hurricane, and left us with another fine mess — trees uprooted or snapped in half, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without electricity. As you emptied your refrigerator and freezer, you thought, "Didn't we just go through this?"

Indeed, only 10 months ago, a nasty sideswipe by Hurricane Irene left more than 750,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers powerless, some of us for eight days. And that was followed by remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. Irene and Lee dumped 32 inches of rain on parts of the Chesapeake region in two weeks.

Nineteen months earlier, Maryland had twin snowstorms, leaving us with 44 inches of snow within five days. The National Weather Service has records for the state going back to 1892. Ten of the state's top 20 snowstorms of all time occurred in the last 30 years, including those two big ones in February 2010.

And now more debilitating heat, on the heels of the "derecho," and more chaos from extensive — and expensive — damage to the power grid.

My point in citing this stackup of events is this: There's not as much down time between big weather — "historic weather" — as there used to be, and that's disturbing.

In its exact meaning, "historic" refers to record temperatures, record rainfall, droughts, wildfires, or a record level of damage measured in economic losses, power outages, etc.

But "historic" has a more sinister connotation in the age of scientifically documented climate change. It suggests that what we are experiencing — in terms of intensity and frequency — is weather that no earlier North American peoples knew, and that there's more of it to come. It means we could be living at the start of a meteorological epoch.

Two years ago, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explored the influence of global warming on Atlantic hurricanes. They projected nearly a doubling in frequency of category 4 and 5 storms within the next 80 years. We've read other predictions of temperature rise, snow-cap melt and ocean level rise, all attributable to a warming planet, with man's carbon emissions suspected as the lead cause.

And a lot of us, not as trained in caution as the climatologist, concur — we're in a new and scary age, the age of weather's new normal.

Of course, scientists will tell you there's no way to know that for certain. It will take decades, if not centuries, before science will be able to look back and say that man's activities — the release of greenhouse gases — has influenced climate in a profound, life-altering way. So those of us who have become convinced that global warming is contributing to unusual and hyper-damaging weather patterns probably will not live to see our suspicions scientifically validated.

But here's what I say about that: It doesn't matter. If you respect scientists, then you're already convinced that the planet is warming and that climate is changing, and not in a pleasant way. You could have looked out a window Friday night and found more validation for that — even if credible scientists list the derecho, however rare for this region, in the category of "short-term variability."

I used to think it ridiculous that people spent so much time watching weather reports on television.

But there's a reason why the news media, including this newspaper, devote so much time and space to weather forecasts and reporting: People pay attention to it, more than ever. And we pay attention to it, more than ever, because there's something about it we can no longer trust as "just the weather." To "talk about the weather" no longer means to chat about the obvious or mundane, or to avoid more substantive subjects.

In the agrarian age, and in agrarian cultures, the farmer watched the weather as a matter of conducting his business. In the 21st century, all of us watch because of the sense, deeply imbedded in our consciousness now, that something in the atmosphere and oceans has profoundly changed, and it's affecting life on Earth in big, sweeping ways. It might be a century, or even two, before research meteorologists confirm the changes. But most of us are there already.

It's old human instinct informed by science.

So, what do we do about it, besides cleaning the gutters and investing in a generator?

You can sit down tonight, by candlelight, and write to your representatives in Congress to get on the stick about greenhouse gas emissions by pushing policy that reduces our overall use of carbon fuels.

You can also suggest a long-term, national, job-creating effort to rebuild the power infrastructure, integrating solar and wind, and burying all those delivery lines that fall every time there's a violent storm like Friday night's. BGE's bill for restoring power to customers after Irene last September was $81 million. It's wholly ridiculous that we haven't invested in underground lines, especially given all the warnings we've received, and what our instincts tell us about the future.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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