|THE WEATHER OF THE FUTURE
Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes
from a Climate-Changed Planet
New York: HarperCollins, August 2010
As a former climate expert with The Weather Channel on cable television and a senior research scientist with Climate Central, Dr. Heidi Cullen is well qualified to elucidate the relationship of weather and climate and to prognosticate on the ways that relationship is likely to change in future. In this book, much like Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert or Stefan Faris's Forecast, she describes impacts at specific regions of the globe, focusing on the people affected. However, being a scientist and not a journalist, she includes the climatological basis for her forecasts.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I presents the science: both the physical science of CO2 in the atmosphere, from Tyndall through Keeling, and the computer science underlying those models we hear so much about. Then, Part II shows us seven locations where warming is likely to hit, and how: Africa's Sahel region; the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; California's Central Valley; Inuit Nunaat and Greenland in the Arctic; Bangladesh; and New York City.
Sargon of Akkad was our world's first emperor. He ruled the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, acquiring the rich agricultural lands of its north, says Cullen, "the old-fashioned way, with a large army." The crops produced there sustained his army, and his empire, until around 2,200 BCE. Then, as a Sumerian priest recorded later, "The heavy clouds did not rain... On its plains where grew fine plants, 'lamentation reeds' now grew." Tell Leilan, which had grown sixfold as a grain distribution center, withered to a dusty forgotten village. Dr. Cullen worked four years with Harvey Weiss on Tell Leilan before she saw it for herself.
You could say that my experiences until I joined Weiss and his team of archaeologists on a dig in the summer of 1999, had been only vicarious. I was what you might call book smart. I could tell you the average high temperature and wind speed for northeastern Syria in July, but that didn't mean much until I stood on a dig site for eight hours a day in 110°F heat taking in mouthfuls of windblown dust. . . . As with most things in life, including global warming, there is something important to be said for personal experience.
– Page 262
She analyzed part of a long core from the Gulf of Oman, finding a spike in dolomite concentration that marked a period when the shamal wind blew dolomite-rich dust off Mesopotamia's plains — pinpointing a century-long drought close to 4,200 years ago.
... at about the time a weary Sumerian priest was sitting down to write an epic poem of collapse. The world's first empire stood for just 100 years. In the end, it amounted to less than one inch of mud at the bottom of the ocean.
– Page 264
Cullen reassures us that the planet will do just fine, as it always has when climate changes. Our empires, however, may wind up as just another inch of mud on some sea-bottom unless we prove we're smarter than Sargon.
"All this is important because if you don't trust the models, you won't believe the forecasts—and the forecasts are what Part I of this book is all about. In Part II, we'll look at the forty-year forecasts for a few important places around the world. . . . I chose these seven places not necessarily because they're the most endangered places or because the stories they offer are the most dramatic, but instead because collectively they demonstrate a spectrum of risks that exist with climate change. . . . Each location I've chosen has its own Achilles heel, a vulnerability that unabated climate change will expose and exploit until the place is forever altered. Taken together these vulnerabilities show the breadth of repercussions that climate change will bring. It is my hope that whether taken as individual stories or as a whole, the predictions found in this book will demonstrate that global warming will hit all of us in the places we love and the homes where we live."
– Pages xvi-xvii
Except for one or two lapses in explanations, Part I of the book is clear and accurate. It serves as a good lead-in to the regional descriptions. Those are also good, drawing on interviews with scientists working there, and on field research by the author herself, to make them clear and compelling. My personal favorite was Chapter 6, about the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's eastern coast, because I was entranced by that place by an article in National Geographic. Threatened like all coral reefs by ocean warming and acidification, the GBR is one treasure house of biological diversity.
It covers an area half the size of Texas and brings in $6.9 billion to Australia's economy every year. That revenue, and the biodiversity that supports it, are in severe danger of coral bleaching, which is ultimately fatal to the reef ecosystem. Bleaching is likely to set in when the water temperature goes up 2°F above the long-term average; and along the GBR it has risen from 0.7 to 1.2°F. Incidents of bleaching took place in 1998, 2002, and 2006, affecting as much as 60% of the reef. It's likely that 2009 was another bad year, although that's still being assessed.
But the sea's major impact will come from its expansion, due both to melting glaciers and icecaps and to the fact that warmer water takes up more space.1 Half the areas described here, and many of the world's nations, are threatened by that rise. Bangladesh is especially at risk: 60 percent of its land lies only a few feet above sea level today. The Sunderbans, a mangrove forest along its coast that is another treasure house of biodiversity and a World Heritage Site, will be lost with just 26 inches of rise — and the very conservative forecast from the IPCC expects a rise of 23.6 inches by 2100.2
The book is very well researched. Its endnotes are extensive, and it has three appendices: An almanac of U.S. weather data and predictions for 20 cities; Some statistics for New York City; and a selected list of the world's most vulnerable places. It also has a good index (good but not perfect; "basketball is indexed on page 50, but the Lakers, mentioned on the same page, are not. Also I could not find an IPCC prediction of SLR through the index.) I recommend this book, but I have to knock it down one notch because of those dubious explanations, the poor quality of its tables and graphs generally.