Did anyone notice that I missed posting on Monday as usual? I was in Madison, at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies’ annual Earth Day Conference (yes, Earth Day is April 22, they were a week early). I got to see talks by Jane Goodall and Céline Cousteau, among others, as well as attend a really great panel on how species and ecosystems might respond to climate change. My favorite aspect of the conference was that it wasn’t just academics and environmental professionals there – attendees included lots of families, teenagers (including past students of mine), and other members of the public, interacting first-hand with scientists and activists. For someone like me who does work in this field, where it’s easy to get caught up in the stress and hustle of everyday tasks, events like this are an important way to get re-inspired and remember why I’ve chosen what can feel some days like a pretty thankless career path.
Then Monday night we made the four-hour drive back from Madison, where it’s chilly but at least there’s no snow on the ground, to Land O’ Lakes, where it still looks about like it did in January. A few weeks ago blogger and prairie ecologist Chris Helzer posted a great explainer on how this year’s late spring and last year’s early spring are both connected to global climate change. If I understand correctly, the idea is that the northern hemisphere’s air and water currents, including the Jet Stream, are ultimately driven by the temperature difference between cold Arctic waters and warmer temperate waters. As the Arctic warms, there’s less of a difference, and everything becomes a bit less stable, so that the Jet Stream wanders around a lot more than it used to. Last year it made a big northward loop, and most of the U.S. was on its southern side, getting warm southern air. This year it’s wandering to the south and the opposite is happening.
At the climate change panel at the conference, they showed us this graphic, and it made a big impression on me.
Click to view it full size so you can read the labels – the left half show changes in human activity over the past couple centuries, and the right half shows corresponding changes in the global environment, all on the same timescale. (Some of the data plotted might surprise you, like the amount of international tourism, or the number of McDonald’s restaurants.) Everything is connected, and everything is changing. Whatever happens, my generation is living through an important period in human history.
Steffen W et al. (2004). Global Change and the Earth System: a Planet under Pressure. The IGBP book series. Springer (Berlin, Germany), 336 p.