When snow covers the ground even as autumn leaves flaunt their colors, it’s a sign that winter is running ahead of schedule. There’s no use griping about the weather. Everybody talks about the weather, Mark Twain observed, but nobody does anything about it. Humans keep a seasonal calendar and the world of nature has its own. And just when the savants of science think they’ve found the key to natural powers, unseen forces demonstrate that, like the lesson of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” their wisdom is mostly from Mickey Mouse.
Unexpectedly, snow threatened a white Thanksgiving last week all along the nation’s eastern shores from Texas to Maine. San Antonio broke a 102-year record for November when the thermometer plunged to 23 degrees. In Washington, D.C., where everyone is frightened of many things, snow is viewed with the dread of a catastrophe; two inches of it seems poured like sand into the gears of the federal bureaucracy. Further north, six inches of slickness left New York area commuters car-bound for hours of gridlock.
Winter weather is most unwelcome when it catches humanity unaware. All indications are that the sun, the primary source of earthly warmth against the frigid wastes of space, has entered a periodic cool spell. Every 11 years or so, say astronomers, sunspots diminish toward a so-called solar minimum, and our favorite star stops spurting the electrified gas that heats Earth’s atmosphere.
Without this solar flow on our blue and green orb, the thermometer falls and global warming loses its sizzle. “High above Earth’s surface, near the edge of space, our atmosphere is losing heat energy,” says Martin Mlynczak, a scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “If current trends continue, it could soon set a space age record for cold.”
That doesn’t mean that Earth is about to wake up a snow-cone any time soon. Historically, solar minimums only cause a temperature drop of a few tenths of a degree Fahrenheit. This one, forecast to reach its nadir in 2019 or 2020, might not be any worse than that. However, sunspots have been known to go AWOL for longer periods — as they did during the so-called Maunder Minimum, which began in 1645 and lasted 65 years. Then, global temperatures fell by more than 1 degree — hardly an ice age, but enough to cause the River Thames to ice over in London and to trigger widespread crop failure across Europe.
The recent early snow event is a reminder that forecasting the weather is a dicey business, and all the more so predicting the long-term effects of climate change. Nevertheless, there’s always someone willing to venture out on thin ice. Climate Depot founder Marc Marano, a global warming skeptic, reminds readers that in 2000, climate scientist David Viner predicted that winter snowfall would soon become “a very rare and exciting event,” eventually going the way of the woolly mammoth. “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is.”
A generation later, snow is still the stuff of childhood wonder and not rare enough for the likes of their unhappy parents. Boston meteorologist Barry Burbank observes that winter snowfall in New England has hardly vanished. Rather, it has fallen in record amounts. Between 2008 and 2018, the Northeast has endured 29 extreme winter storms — and this before the onset of the unfolding solar minimum. By comparison, no decade tracing from the 1950s has seen more than 10.
Investment prospectuses frequently advise clients, “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance,” and that’s true about predictions of the weather, too. A hundred years of climate statistics is but the blink of an eye in the billions and billions of years of the life of the planet.
Climate change activists usually ignore all that, convinced their snapshot of current weather patterns represents all time. The United Nations Intergovernmental Conference on Climate Change warned during a fearful meeting in South Korea last month that the world has only a dozen years left to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, or calamity will befall us all.
Temperature readings have not kept pace with the predicted rise in greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from human activity, but representatives from nearly 200 nations are nevertheless expected to gather in Poland Dec. 2 to draw up rules honoring the Paris Climate Agreement, meant to turn down the global thermostat, starting in 2020. President Trump won’t be there. Like a lot of Americans keeping an eye on the sky, he might be busy sharpening his skates.