Seeing the Bigger Picture: Harmonizing Weather and Climate Variability

Photo from the New York Times Magazine.

As humans, we have a finite amount of RAM in our brains at our disposal at any given moment to observe and analyze the world around us. It’s difficult for us to take what we see day-to-day and compile it all together to analyze the various trends at play over a longer period of time. We all can easily observe that, recently, there have been a lot of ups-and-downs in the weather that are unusual and uncharacteristic for summers in Central Pennsylvania: the week of July 7th – July 13th saw an average high temperature of about 87⁰F in Carlisle, while the week immediately following it (July 14th – July 20th) was 79⁰F, nearly ten degrees cooler. This sort of drastic change in temperature seems to be becoming the norm more than the exception.

It’s harder for us, however, to place those observations against the perspective of the trends going on at a higher plane, in the climate rather than in the weather. “Rising sea levels, warmer global temperatures, increasing ocean temperatures, and shrinking ice sheets seem like a distant reality, one that surely doesn’t affect me directly.” However, climate and weather are undeniably and inseparably intertwined; a changing climate will have severe repercussions on the weather we experience on the ground in our own lives, from more extreme summers and winters to increased flooding and longer, more frequent droughts around the world, as expressed in The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart.
Putting variations in the climate over hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years in harmony with the weather variability we see on a day-to-day basis is a tall order. To do so, a systems-centric perspective is required in order to connect the dots between our personal experiences and what’s working above them, and how long-term changes in the climate trickle down to affect short-term weather patterns. Just as a drop in a body of water ripples throughout the whole body, so does a change in a process within a system affect the system as a whole and how it operates. Our climate is a system of weather patterns, and a change in it will have far-reaching effects on these weather patterns in turn. Our humanness doesn’t make this perspective readily accessible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely out of reach. It is essential, however, for us to think more holistically towards the relationship between weather and climate variability in order to see the system as a whole, and to fully understand the different mechanisms and processes at work within it.


All weather data from Weather Underground (



Civilization in the Peaks of the Andes

By Joe Riley

The Inca Empire is generally regarded as the largest pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas, but from the 12th century AD until the early 1400s, the Inca people lived as a pastoral tribe in the area surrounding the city of Cusco. It was only after Sapa Inca (the title given to the Inca leader) Pachacuti came to power in 1438 AD that the Incan territory expanded from a small kingdom surrounding the capital at Cusco to a large empire stretching from what is now southern Colombia all the way to central Chile.

Besides expanding Incan territory and consolidating various different Andean tribes under one rule, Pachacuti is also well known for launching a building program that not only rebuilt much of the city of Cusco, but also created such famous sites as the Koricancha Sun Temple, Machu Picchu, and the Capac Ñan, the royal Incan highway system.

Mark Adams, in his book Turn Right at Machu Picchu explores the architecture of many of these Incan sites, in addition to ones built before and after Pachacuti’s reign, all while retracing the steps of Hiram Bingham III’s various Peruvian expeditions during the early 1900s.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Incan architecture that Adams observes is that most of the buildings are constructed without the use of mortar. Instead, the stones are so precisely cut and shaped and fit so closely together that a knife cannot pass between any two stones. And it is not only the buildings that are constructed in this manner, but also many of the stone walls and bridges along the Capac Ñan, the highway system that traversed the whole of the Incan Empire.

Despite generally not using mortar, Incan masonry was very stable. The walls of their buildings were slightly inclined toward the inside, giving the buildings great seismic resistance. In the case of an earthquake, the stone blocks would settle right where they belonged after only a bit of shifting during the tremor.

The Incans did all the carving of these stones with bronze, copper and stone tools. Unlike the civilizations of Europe and Asia, the Incan Empire (and much of the Americas) never went through an Iron Age, and so had no access to hard metals. Even so, the Incans were still able to create “one of the greatest imperial states in history,” in the words of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, who conquered Peru in 1533.

Forging an empire as large the Incan’s without the use of iron tools is impressive enough, but the Incans also made do without the use of a writing system. They did have a spoken language, which was a form of Quechua, but there was no form of written communication. Instead, information was recorded through the use of khipus, which were groups of colored, spun or knotted cords decipherable only to a special class of khipu keepers. Because of this, no surviving khipus have been fully decrypted, although it has been theorized that the khipus use a system analogous to a computer’s binary code — very interesting to me as a computer science minor.

The Incans also had no real concept of the wheel. Transporting messages, goods and persons around the high peaks of the Andes was all done either on foot or through the use of alpacas and llamas. It is generally assumed that any advanced civilization needs to have invented the wheel at some point during their history, but in reality there’s only one civilization that invented it. Sometime around 3500 BC, an unknown Sumerian inventor came up with the concept of the wheel, and from there, it spread around Europe, North Africa and Asia. But the concept of the wheel never made it to the Americas due to that little bit of water separating it from the old world. In place of the wheel, the Incas made use of wooden rollers to transport heavy objects, although these were not attached to the object being transported, as a wheel would have been.

The majority of well-known ancient civilizations existed on fertile plains at low altitudes, but without the wheel, a writing system or hard metals, the Incans were able to build a vast and interconnected empire on the peaks of the second highest mountain range in the world, with some of the most impressive architecture of any ancient civilization. How they were able to do this still remains a mystery to many scholars, and with no written records from the Incans themselves, it will be a while until we are able to understand the Incans advanced ways.

An example of the khipus, used in the absence of a written records


Incan Masonry
A fine Example of Incan Masonry


Capac Ñan
The Capac Ñan going along a cliffside


Koricancha Sun Temple
Koricancha Sun Temple


Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu



Bringing Back Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood

Community members of Lambertville, NJ enjoy Community Kitchen- a great way to foster the community-mindedness McKibben percribes.
Community members of Lambertville, NJ enjoy Community Kitchen- a great way to foster the community-mindedness McKibben prescribes.

Eaarth by Bill McKibben is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in living through climate change. Focusing on what we need to do as a society and personally to adapt to our new planet, Eaarth, McKibben brings some hope to an otherwise hopeless subject. Just like any probable solution to adapting to a changing world, McKibben prescribes a paradigm shift, this time a shift from a centralized, ever-expanding society to more decentralized societies aiming to sustain community, not expand it. My sister and I were “raised by a village”. Growing up in a small town, the daughter of a folklorist and homebody, neighbors have always been an important part of my life. We are just as comfortable in our home as we are in the local library or other places we volunteer at. We barely ever get through a spontaneous baking job without borrowing a cup of sugar from one neighbor or a teaspoon of vanilla from another. Thus, McKibben’s prescription of more community-based efforts like micro-grids for power and local food initiatives resonated with me but even more so, the idea that we will need to rely on our neighbors for help as we continue to face climate changes hit close to home.

Already with Hurricane Sandy and losing power for 10-15 days in town, being neighborly became a requirement. Volunteering at the Community Kitchen in town, where there was no lights but still hot water and a working stove, we cooked everything that started to defrost from the freezer and must have fed the whole town at least twice. Everyone came out for the hot meal, not just the usual crowd. And those who did not show up, we brought chili to the charging station at City Hall. Just as McKibben claims, when we were hit with a disaster debatably a symptom of climate change, the whole town became neighborly as we could no longer rely on central power or central authorities to come to our rescue. The bottom line: people like to be neighborly once they give it a chance. When push comes to shove, they will reach out to help and get help not just from the poor half way across the world but those right across the street.



Being Neighborly- Lambertville, NJ’s Community Kitchen

Sabotaging Progress with Global Climate Change- Merchants of Doubt

The MVP in the Merchants of Doubt Arena
The MVP in the Merchants of Doubt Arena


Merchant-of-doubt-scientists do not follow scientific practices regarding climate change. At first glance it seems if they do because they claim to represent larger scientific institutions and coordinate with other acclaimed scientists. With a little more research, as Oreskes and Conway did in Merchants of Doubt, their scientific processes are proven fraud and filled with deception. One National Academy report on carbon dioxide avoided the standard cooperation and peer-review process by splitting up the chapters in the report so committee members did not have to agree on one answer. Thus, even though it was published through the National Academy, the assessment did not include the standard scientific peer review practiced by most academy members. Furthermore, the splitting up of chapters resulted in conflicts with the science of global warming pointing to action and the economics of global warming pointing to inaction, with the final chapter concluding to follow the economic path. Thus, scientific evidence was disregarded, a practice unacceptable in the credible scientific community.

The merchants of doubt are also responsible for creating a global climate change debate. Through the Marshall Institute, three scientists distributed an unpublished paper which they later published into a booklet, asserting that science points to the sun causing global warming, not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. First, an unpublished paper means that it never went through peer-review process, the process vital to the credibility of science. Readers may have overlooked this, seeing that the article was written by three acclaimed scientists, never mind they had no expertise in the field. In fact, the Marshall Institute itself was created to defend President Reagan’s “Star Wars” against scientists’ claims that the strategy was unrealistic. Thus, it was created to defend policy decisions from questioning scientists. The three authors of the booklet represented merchants of doubt, faking scientific credibility in order to avoid regulation to mitigate global climate change. Sadly, their plan worked to convince White House members that global climate change was natural and raised no need for action. Merchants of doubt are the reason anthropogenic global climate change has just recently been acknowledged by the U.S. president even though the idea was first researched and accepted by the scientific community over half a century earlier.

Discovering Global Warming on the Delaware

Lambertville, NJ after Hurricane Irene– Image

In The Discovery of Global Warming, Spencer Weart tracks how the public opinion and science regarding the discovery of global climate change developed hand-in-hand. People started noticing changes in climate at the same time that scientists were discovering it. Living on the Delaware River in Lambertville, NJ, flooding is a part of our annual weather. There are of course bigger flood years than others and some years where there is only minimal flooding. My family and I belong to a traditional haul-seining fishery in town, where we became involved through my mom’s research. Even though my family lives on a hill, making us lucky compared to those downtown, being connected to the fishery, which lies on an island in the river, means we are constantly aware of flooding. Growing up here included flood days, hurricane flooding, municipal sewage failure, and free ice cream when water ruined the ice cream shop’s electricity. Being involved in a 150+ year old fishery, I hear about record flooding past my measly 19 years. The “flood of ‘55” is especially legendary but lately we’ve gotten more and more that I can remember. Notice even the flood of 1955 occurred over fifty years after industrialization, meaning not even it is free from climate change speculation. We’ve also had dry years where there is barely enough water to make a worthwhile haul and my friend in 5th grade could walk to the middle of the river with the water level below his chest. Although single-time events like floods and droughts cannot be attributed to global warming in particular, it seems as though they have been occurring more frequently. The increased frequency could be a result of changed precipitation patterns due to the global climate changing.

Sometimes it may seem as though events occur more frequently when one experiences them in their own life time so I decided to research the frequency of flooding in my area. Although clear records could only be found starting at 1955, a history of the Washington Crossing Bridge near my home was taken down by floods in 1841 and 1903. Although the bridge was newly made of steel, to strengthen it, the 1955 flood damaged the bridge enough to warrant a 3-month closure, indicating comparable levels to the 1841 and 1903 floods (Samuel, 2008). This gives a time period of about 50 years, give-or-take, between major floods. Compare this to my lifetime (1995-present) where notable floods occurred in 1996, 2004, 2005, and 2006. It should be noted that in researched history, no other floods are deemed notable between the 1955 and 1996 floods (Erminio 2006 and U.S. Army Corps). Although it is still possible that the three floods in a row could be an anomaly, they still raised hoopla in my hometown, along with Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, that climate can be threatening and global climate change must be taken seriously.

References Cited

History of Delaware River Floods

History of Washington Crossing Bridge

Flooding Studies by Army Corps of Engineers



The 6 Cs: Climate, Consequences, Chance, Circulation, Change and CFCs

The climate is increasingly more delicate due to human interactions with earth systems. We have entered the Anthropocene a world that is home to disappearing ice, high levels of greenhouse gases, rising temperatures, and uncertainty about what lies ahead for earth. Journalist Fred Pearce explores current climate science, discussing how the climate has changed in the past combined with modern scientific knowledge. Pearce takes a journalistic approach to telling the stories behind the people and their work to discover how the earth has worked in the past and what that can tell us about the future.

In the late 1920s Charles Midgley developed Freon and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that would eventually create the ozone hole over Antarctica discovered by Joe Farman in the 1980s. Three years after Farman’s discovery, the international community recognized the importance of the ozone hole, which led delegates to sign the Montreal Protocol. However, if Midgley had chosen to use bromine instead of chlorine in his refrigerant, the ozone would have been in much worse shape by the time Farman noticed the hole in 1982. According to Pearce, if Midgley had chosen bromine in his refrigerant instead of chlorine the effects could have been one hundred times worse due to bromines ability to destroy ozone given proper temperatures and sunlight conditions.

In his conclusion, Pearce warns that we are ending one of two known periods of climate stability in the past 100,000 years, pushing the climate over a tipping point towards a hothouse climate. He speculates about the possibility of an ocean circulation shut down in the North Atlantic, with warmer water no longer being able to sink into the depths of the arctic to appear two thousand years later in the pacific. If the great climate moderator does shut down, civilization as we know it will follow suite. Our current society will not be able to survive without the ocean circulation currently in affect, the gulfstream could disappear and Europe would freeze. Scientists don’t yet know what the tipping point could be, possibly when the Greenland ice sheet goes and an influx of fresh water cuts off thermo-haline circulation. Whatever the tipping point may be, it would be disastrous for life as we know it.

Pearce does a satisfactory job at compiling significant milestones in climate history, while helping readers understand the immensity of geologic time during which the climate has fluctuated. However, our current scientific knowledge around the intricacies of climate change is not well communicated to lay readers. This may represent the complexities of the current climate crisis, but does not communicate the urgency with which we must act to combat the situation. This is a point that we ought to develop as a society; we must begin to educate the general public about climate and atmospheric science because as a population we must understand the problems presented before we can act on them.

Bibliography and resources

Broecker, Wallace S. “Thermohaline circulation, the Achilles heel of our climate system: Will man-made CO2 upset the current balance?.” Science 278.5343 (1997): 1582-1588.

Farman, J. C., B. G. Gardiner, and J. D. Shanklin. Large losses of total ozone in Antarctica reveal seasonal ClOx/NOx interaction. 1985.

Joughin, Ian, Benjamin E. Smith, and Brooke Medley. “Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Under Way for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica.” Science 344.6185 (2014): 735-738.

Mann, Michael E., Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes. “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries.” Nature392.6678 (1998): 779-787.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature.” Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment 36.8 (2007): 614-621.

Making it in this New World

It is going to be difficult. What is “it” you may be wondering? It is the transition from one way of life to a completely antithetical way of life that is about to occur. It is the future conditions that have been crafted inadvertently throughout the development of the modern world. It is what Bill Mckibben is desperately warning about in eaarth, a planet that has a new set of operating standards. Earthquakes where they used to not be, destructive droughts, unpredictable changes to agriculture, dangerous diseases spreading rapidly into new territory, and dangerous global conflicts. Having been fortunate to sit down and converse with Mckibben, as well as see him speak to several different audiences, I can hear the sense of desperation in his written works, as well as the tremendous hope he has for our species in the “new world” as he puts it. But as I told you before, it is going to be difficult.

The difficulty does not simply rise from the monumental shift away from fossil fuels that is necessary, but it also lies in the mystery of what society will look like when the dust settles, if it ever does settle. There are innumerable proposals in existence, just as many as there are for a definition of sustainability. From the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Futures Study on renewable energy in the United States to’s goal of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to Exxon Mobil’s devotion to burn all of their carbon reserves in order to ensure a secure future. Consensus has not been reached, but we can hope it will be this year and next at the COP. Mckibben offers a strong general solution that I would gladly follow; focus on community.

How do we survive in a new world when we have adapted to a completely different set of rules? Assuming rapid adaptation on a massive scale will keep the crops from drying out and our population centers above the rising tides we would need one of two things; either a strong central government and international organization to make change happen- I am pretty sure that we do not want to go down that road- or see an overwhelmingly amount of the population begin to change. The latter seems to be more within our reach, at least in the US. We are not there yet though. Climate change deniers still exist, people are still belching carbon from their exhausts, and Exxon Mobil still plans on not letting any of their reserves be stranded investments by burning them all.
What is to be done then? We must educate, advocate, and grow a community around curbing carbon emissions. Mckibben wasn’t the first to recognize the importance of community. It is a recurring theme in progressive thought. The word is becoming overused, Mckibben admits it, but that does not mean it is not important. It is also merely a first step, because once this community is strong enough to enact change then we must begin to change.

-Justin McCarty