Even as Albany is buried under 2 feet (and counting) of snow, I’m not intrinsically worried about the March blizzard. Storms happen all the time here straight into the spring, and I’m not sophisticated enough to know if this is weather or climate. Just like a cool day in July doesn’t disprove global warming, those warm temperatures last month don’t prove it.
What I do know is that climate scientists are in agreement that the volatility of weather in this part of the country is being exacerbated by changes to the climate. The waters of the Atlantic (where storms like these draw their strength) are warming, while the Jet Stream is weakening, greatly increasing the chances that conditions will be right for a storm of this magnitude. Some scientists are even tentatively suggesting that the “perfect” confluence of circumstances this week may be something that would have been impossible in pre-Industrial America (not that the snowfall or winds would have been impossible, it should be noted– only that the manner of their production would have been).
Such distinctions are important because the word freak is being thrown around far too casually right now. Freakish things are by definition of the rarest variety. They happen outside of the realm of predictable normality, and though immediately impactful are nothing to take seriously as anything more. Freak accidents don’t call for changes to driving laws. Freak occurrences don’t demand fundamental changes to everyday life. Freak storms fade into footnotes on Wikipedia pages.
And whether or not this blizzard is a function of climate change, it is clearly not a freak storm. Rather, when combined with the other extreme weather events that now make up an increasingly unpredictable climate, it represents a new and dangerous reality that we are forced to reconcile– at least until we seriously address the things that are fundamentally changing our planet.
And let’s be clear. It isn’t a pile of snow that’s the problem here. And it doesn’t stop at the peril the storm puts the homeless, the infirm, or the powerless in.
Five years ago, when I visited Michigan, a similar wave of bizarre weather crushed the state’s cherry industry. Because of early budding spurred by unusually warm weather late in the winter, 90% of the crop was lost and a then-undetermined number of cherry trees were killed as a result of spring cold snaps and ice storms that either destroyed them outright or left them exposed to deadly infections. Processing plants shut down, farmhands were put out of work, and families were torn apart when many of the employees who were laid off were forced to join migrant agriculture crowds– and this doesn’t even factor into the shortage of a foodstuff the state’s economy depended upon. The effects are still being felt today.
That summer I met one of the lucky farmhands who still had his job. He made no bones about it. He blamed it on global warming. He had no choice, after all. The realities of it were directly impacting him. He could either pretend that it was a freak set of events that had brought him to hardship, or join the voices calling for the truth to be heeded.
Right now I am worried about Upstate New York’s fruit orchards– particularly its apples, which are critical to its economy and important to the nation’s food supply. I am worried about Long Island’s vineyards. I am worried about Maine’s blueberries. The buds of all these plants are exposed, and because of that, so are the lives of those that depend upon them.
But more than that, I am worried that yet another lesson will go unheeded. Come Thursday, people will return to the grocery stores and see the abundance that blesses our modern lives. Soon after that the snow will melt. Eventually the storm will become anecdotal– a “remember when?” of the time when the roads were clogged with stranded cars and there was a conspicuous absence of toilet paper on the racks. We’ll take comfort in thinking back on the freak event that once inconvenienced us so. And we’ll return to the complacency of thinking that because it has passed, warmth and nourishment will once again be our rarely-broken lot.
I for one would rather we not assume this. I prefer we do what we can to assure it.