The Sippican Lands Trust has been offering a series of virtual presentations that not only have helped to keep us engaged as a community but have informed us on a myriad of topics from cooking with mushrooms to exploring the severity of climate change. In July, the SLT will host Dr. Greg Skomal who will give an update on his fascinating and important work tracking sharks along the east coast, most notably Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay.
On May 18, the SLT hosted Dr. Jennifer Francis, a well-known Marion resident and research scientist whose passion for the climate cannot be overstated. It is, after all, her life’s work. Francis has spent decades studying and researching Arctic climate with an increasing focus on shifting weather patterns and the implications that those shifts are the result of global warming.
Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, began by setting the stage for what can only be described as a wake-up call to the world – things, climate wise, are changing and accelerating at a much faster pace then previously believed. “It’s not a question of if, but a question of how fast,” Francis stated.
Before delving into the data and other facts related to global warming, Francis noted that sea-level rise, a result of melting ice in the Arctic, will impact high value properties along coastlines. She said that even though governments around the globe may not be willing to accept climate change realities, insurance companies are paying close attention.
Francis described in fairly simple terms the average person could understand that the Arctic jet stream is normally smooth or symmetrical, but researchers are observing curves in the jet stream that create weather extremes. She said that last winter’s deep freeze of southern portions of the U.S. was an example of a curving or pockets in the Arctic jet stream. “It was minus-two degrees in Dallas, colder than Alaska and Greenland,” she said.
The changes in the jet stream were compounded by a Polar Vortex, according to Francis. “The Polar Vortex can get disrupted; that’s what happened in 2020. It happens every few years; it pushes the jet stream south,” she said. This pushing affect, Francis explained, allowed warm air to move north in pockets, creating warmer temperatures in New England and other locales.
Francis’ hypothesizes that a weakening jet stream will result in more frequent and more extreme weather patterns. “A warmer Arctic will create a weaker jet stream, which will generate persistent weather,” she said.
Taking unique weather events as a whole, Francis explained that such events have tripled since 1980 and sharpened her point by saying, “Extreme weather events are related to climate change.” She said that 20,000 years ago the planet was in the grips of the ice age. “Ever since then, it’s been warming.” But she explained that warming first attributed to natural changes has accelerated, most especially in the past few decades, the post-industrial age. Francis said, if the planet was not experiencing this abnormal warming, “We’d be in a cooling trend.” She said the burning of fossil fuels has allowed temperatures to spike. She said that due to burning fossil fuels there has been a 3-degree temperature rise and that by the end of the century another degree of warmth will be experienced.
The impact of global warming also creates increased water vapor in the atmosphere. “Water vapor is a greenhouse gas.… More warming creates more water vapor, which traps CO2, which creates more storms, more and bigger hurricanes,” she said. One could say it is an endless cycle we have created.
As Francis spoke, the realities of human impact on a global scale became clearer and more alarming. “Between 1948 and 2020, (a rise of) 5 degrees over the average temperatures is allowing sea ice to melt fast.… Thick ice is nearly all gone,” she said, and called the rapid loss of sea ice “breathtaking.”
Francis said that our personal choices have a direct impact on global warming, from using energy-efficient appliances to decreasing the use of fossil fuels and voting from leaders who champion environmental issues. “If we do nothing, the Arctic ice will be gone in 30 years.” She said the best course of action would be “aggressive emissions reduction.”
Francis implored the audience: “Support energy conservation, … educate yourself, [and] get involved.”
For more information on the SLT programs, visit sippicanlandstrust.org.
By Marilou Newell