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Carl Wernicke: Ice, Flooding, Sunshine, And Climate Change


Watching last week’s great flood from out of town was unsettling. We had been in Pittsburg for a nephew’s college graduation, and on that Tuesday night found ourselves on a plane circling Pensacola.

The pilot said heavy rain over the airport was delaying our arrival, but don’t worry, we have plenty of fuel. 20 minutes later he said there was still a nasty storm cell over the airport and he was waiting for it to move.

Ten minutes later he said the storm wasn’t moving as expected, but was just sitting over the airport, so we were headed for Tallahassee. We landed there, refueled and returned to Atlanta after midnight. By then the extent of the situation in Pensacola was becoming clear, and we were hearing shocking rainfall numbers.

The next day, all flights to Pensacola were canceled. And all of Thursday’s flights were booked. We spent the day in an Atlanta hotel watching TV and the Internet and seeing the growing toll of destruction; by the time we saw the astounding pictures of Scenic Highway on the News Journal website we were fully aware that this wasn’t just another rainstorm.

On Thursday we flew to Mobile and drove in from there, and finally managed to join our community in beginning the recovery.

What makes this all the more concerning is the recent report that the impact of climate change, which even many of the people who don’t waste time denying its reality see as some future event, is already upon us. And worse, that coastal, low-lying states like Florida could face the most severe impact.

Now, it’s always risky to try to link any particular weather event to global climate change. An unusually cold winter somewhere does no more to refute global warming than an unusually hot summer somewhere else proves it.

But we know that climate change models predict changes in weather patterns, and that part of that change can be more, and more intense, episodes of extreme weather.

So the great ice storm that hit us in January could have been a freak event, one of those wrinkles in the fabric of weather that smoothes out on its own.  Just as the great flood, on its own, could be seen the same way.

But having the strangest winter storm of my lifetime followed less than four months later by the worst rain event of my lifetime raises warning flags.  And this comes on top of one of the wettest winters I can remember. When we first moved to Garcon Point I did a lot of work in our woods, like mowing, during the winter because it was not just cool, but also dry. This past winter I planned to do some clearing to expand our garden, but the woods literally never dried out. Without carefully checking the records I can’t say for sure, but I believe it rained at least one day every week this winter. Large areas I have mowed in recent winters went unmowed this year.

One thing that has always made Northwest Florida winters enjoyable was the sunshine, unlike the grey winters in the north. But for much of this winter the gray days seemed to outnumber the sunny days.

OK, maybe some cyclical weather pattern caused the rainy winter, the ice storm, the flood and the overcast winter days. And we have certainly proved that we can recover from isolated weather events as severe as Hurricane Ivan.

Still, while we know that a number of ancient civilizations collapsed because of climate changes, many people think we have advanced too far for that. But if extreme weather is to become the norm, the last six months have been an education on how easily even an advanced civilization can be humbled.