Elections Come and Go but the Climate Keeps Changing

American news has been dominated this week by stories of President Trump’s illness and hospitalization. But it is important to remember that even a hard-fought presidential campaign may not be as important in the long run as the dramatic events happening in the natural world. The bizarre weather generated by changes in climate will affect us long after our next president has been chosen. This year’s hurricane season on the Southern coast has sent one hurricane after another up through the Gulf of Mexico. Weather watchers have even run out of names for new hurricanes, although the season is not half over. 

Wildfires in California and Oregon have filled the skies with smoke over large parts of several states. On September 9, San Francisco and much of the Bay Area suffered through a day of darkness. Skies were bright reddish orange soon after sunrise and faded to a deep yellow after several hours. Pedestrians moved through dark street with careful steps and headlights and streetlights were on for most of the day. Normal daylight did not arrive until late in the afternoon. 

Although during the week after September 9 the darkness let up, air continued to be smokey and unhealthy. Gradually as winds came in from the Pacific, smoke drifted to the Eastern states. It was a grim reminder of how weather affects everyone and how much a change in the weather can change our lives. At least now scientists and others are beginning to understand the causes and results of climate change. The tragedy is that some people refuse to acknowledge that information and prefer to drag us back into ignorance. 

Throughout history, some of the most dramatic changes have been brought by events most people knew nothing about. In 1815 a volcanic eruption brought changes to climate around the world—and the most frightening part of the events was that no one knew what had caused them. 

For three years weather was disrupted throughout the world—China had floods, Europe had freezing temperatures in June and July, and in America crops the New England States were hit by heavy frosts and snow during May and June. All of these disruptions were caused by a huge volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on an island which is now part of Indonesia. The explosion sent streams of ash into the air where it lingered and caused temperatures to drop around the globe. Europe suffered crop losses that caused overwhelming damage in Ireland, Wales, and Germany. Prices rose sharply leaving hungry peasants suffering. Demonstrations at grain markets and bakeries, followed by riots, arson, and looting, took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of the 19th century. 

Observers were baffled by what could have caused the extreme changes in weather, and political leaders struggled to explain events. Some people blamed it on sunspots. Many others turned to religion for an explanation. In upstate New York, Joseph Smith announced he had discovered new revelations from God that led eventually to Smith’s founding of the Mormon church. No satisfactory explanation was found for the dramatic climate changes of 1815 to 1817. The volcanic ash gradually disappeared, floating to the earth in small droplets. Temperatures returned to a more normal pattern.  

For the complete story of the upheavals caused by the Tambora eruption, you can read The Year without Summer; 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History  by Klingaman, William K. and Klingaman, Nicolas P.  It is not a book that is easy to forget. 

More than two centuries have passed since Tambora caused these dramatic changes in climate. But once again we are in the midst of climate changes that are affecting the lives of many people around the world. Temperatures are rising throughout the world making many areas of the world unlivable. But now scientists have collected enough data to know what we should be doing. It is time for all of us to acknowledge the danger and to work toward solutions instead of ignoring the challenge. The Union of Concerned Scientists has some important suggestions for all of us.