Saturday, August 27, 2011

Trend or Anomaly: what do extreme summer weather and shark sightings mean?

It's too hot and sticky to write tonight. Here in Southern California, I'm tempted to draw a lukewarm bath and settle in to get some long-postponed reading done. While the east coast deals with the effects of a rare earthquake and Hurricane Irene as it slowly loses power but relentlessly churns its way along the eastern seaboard, the west coast is beset with high heat and humidity - up to 112 degrees in the northern inland valleys and the strong possibility of thunderstorms in the mountains, thanks to moisture drawn up from the south - which can bring the dual risks of flash floods or brush/forest fires.

Add to that, beach goers in Mission Beach, San Diego who hoped to cool off in the ocean have been forced out of the water due to sightings of a large shark cruising the area. Lifeguards twice closed the beaches at Belmont Park when a reported 14-foot shark was spotted, but the park is currently re-opened.

It's at times like these that thoughts of apocalyptic weather, global warming in high gear, and "summer of the shark" descriptors get bandied about and, to a degree, it's understandable. It's human nature and it can be heightened by a feedback loop with the help of the media. After all, in today's crowded information age, the media relies on our emotional hot buttons to catch our attention which, in turn, furthers the public frenzy and round and round it goes.

This isn't meant to diminish the importance of the damage being wrought by Hurricane Irene. While it has lost some of its clout and could even be downgraded to a tropical storm if it continues to lose energy as it makes landfall, it still has delivered high winds, considerable rain, and the threat of high water storm surge which can produce considerable flooding in low-lying coastal areas. And there is the tragedy of at least 6 deaths being attributed to the storm so far.

But scientists will tell you to take a deep breath before attributing our severe weather to global warming. The computer models are definitely there that will show that as the climate changes, so do weather patterns and one of the anticipated outcomes of warming temperatures will be more severe weather, including tropical storms and hurricanes. And there is plenty of historical evidence to show that temperatures are up and we are on that path. As an advocate of climate change, I do not dispute the scientific evidence but the experts will tell you that one extreme summer does not a trend make. At least not yet.

At the same time, one does not want to end up being one of those who ignored the boy who cried wolf until you wake up and find the big hairy brute on your doorstep. So, I wait to hear what the climatologists will have to say and take heart that if a definitive trend does take time, it means we have a window of opportunity to act now and do something about it before it becomes insurmountable.

With regards to recent shark sightings both here and off the coast of Massachusetts, these both could be, like the weather, statistical anomalies. It's certainly not unusual to have large sharks - typically great whites - cruising the California coast. Juveniles feed here and there can be lone adults looking to feed on seals or sea lions while others stick to the siren calls of migration - for San Diego, adults are often running south this time of year to Isla Guadalupe off Baja, Mexico.

As a shark advocate, my initial reaction to calls for a "summer of the sharks" or the media's use of the well-worn term "shark-infested waters" is one of "wouldn't that be nice." If the statistics were to support those labels that would mean that sharks as an ocean species are making a comeback from years of extreme decline due to overfishing. For me, that's a comforting thought, but let's see how the numbers play out over time. In the meantime, as with my optimism regarding taking action to minimize climate change, I will continue to support efforts to protect and conserve are toothy oceanic friends.

So, while my knee jerk reaction will continue to be, "geez louise, this has got to be the hottest ever," I'll try to take that deep breath and see what the trend analysis shows - while I crack open another Diet Coke and settle into the tub.

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