Unnatural Disasters: Ice Storms, Droughts, Earthquakes, and Fossil Fuels
By Mike Andrew
Ice storms in Florida. Drought in California. Earthquakes – of all things – in Oklahoma.
The news media call these events “natural disasters,” yet they are anything but. In fact, evidence suggests they are the consequence of deliberate choices made by corporate CEOs, specifically the decision to continue to consume fossil fuels at a reckless pace.
More than 200 million people have been affected by unusually cold weather in North America alone, in an area ranging from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Hudson’s Bay to the Caribbean.
The continental U.S. recorded the coldest temperatures ever, since the National Weather Service started keeping records in 1870. And on January 7, Ontario, Canada, experienced day-long temperatures colder than concurrent temperatures on Mars, which the rover Curiosity measured at −29 °C (−20 °F).
Highways, airports, and even local businesses were shut down by ice storms, blizzards, and the sheer cold. Evan Gold of the weather research firm Planalytics calculated that the U.S. economy lost some $5 billion due to cold and storm related disruption.
Because the blistering cold weather also coincided with a spike in the prices of fossil fuels normally used for home heating – oil, coal, and natural gas – many people were unable to heat their homes adequately. An estimated 20-30 Americans have died so far as a direct result of the cold snap.
Weather anomalies are also being reported in other areas of the globe, with more than 100 cold-related deaths reported in the Ukraine, and similar deaths also reported in India.
Meanwhile, a bubble of warm air sits over much of the West Coast, with California experiencing a disastrous drought.
California normally produces more than half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States. It is also the country’s leading dairy producer. That means drought-related price increases for basic food commodities will impact every family in the country.
But that’s not the whole story. The weather patterns affecting the Northern Hemisphere have been extremely uneven. While snow cover in Eurasia and North America was above average, the ice cover in the Arctic was 4.5% below the 1981-2010 average.
Between 2001 and 2013, at least nine major scientific studies have been published on the link between climate change and extreme temperature fluctuations in mid-latitude North America.
Long story short, the melting of polar sea ice – which is proceeding at an unexpectedly rapid pace – replaces white, reflective ice with dark, heat-absorbent open water. As a result, the polar regions heat up faster than other parts of the globe, reducing the temperature difference between the Arctic and more southerly regions.
Unfortunately, it’s that temperature difference that drives the now-famous “polar vortex” – the jet stream winds that circle the poles. Consequently, the jet stream has become weaker and more erratic in its course, sending very cold air usually confined to the poles streaming into central North America.
The danger for humanity is that this weather pattern will become the new normal, as industry continues to consume fossil fuels, and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions continue to melt polar ice.
And that’s not all. The hunt for new sources of fossil fuels to burn is leading to threats to the very crust of the earth.
While we expect earthquakes along the boundaries of the earth’s tectonic plates – the big pieces of our planet’s crust that rub and jar against each other – Oklahoma, far from tectonic boundaries, is experiencing earthquake “swarms,” with as many as 2,600 quakes in 2013 alone.
Most of them have been very small, but more than 200 measured over 3.0 on the Richter scale, big enough to be felt by people on the ground.
The culprit might be fracking – the process by which oil and natural gas are extracted from shale by cracking the rock with explosives and then pumping millions of gallons of fluid into the cracks to keep them open while the fossil fuels flow to the surface.
The cause might also be wastewater disposal wells, which are drilled to dispose of contaminated water that is a byproduct of oil drilling. There are reportedly more than 10,000 of such wells in Oklahoma.
In any case, it is clear that the fossil fuel industry is putting the earth’s climate and the health and safety of its people at risk.