Sunday, June 24, 2007

Seasonal Passages

At exactly 2:06 p.m. on June 21st, just at the very moment that the Northern Hemisphere marks the beginning of summer, the Earth began the gentle tilt southward that heralds the six-month journey toward winter. Until recently, this neverending transition through the seasons was a fairly seamless one. Each passage was marked, in turn, by the emergence of a new leaf, the buzz of summer's insects, the coming of the fall colors, the first frost, a gentle snow.

Traditionally the passage of seasons has been the romantic stuff of great poetry and literature. Beauty and power combined. When we think of this power of the seasons and the immensity of the planet, relative to our own insignificant proportions, it's hard to believe that we humans are altering this course at a dizzying pace.

But we are, conscious, willing, or not. We have yet to truly grasp that the threat of climate change is as much about the rate of change, as it is about the warming of the planet. The once predictable passage through the seasons has become much more like a thrill ride on a killer rollercoaster.

Consider the recent violent storms that ravaged much of Southern Ontario last week. Within a period of less than an hour the weather ran the gamut from still, hot and humid, to torrential rains, lightning and powerful, destructive winds that tossed trees around like matchsticks. In the aftermath, eerie calm, clear skies and cool temperatures were all that remained.

The problem is all in the naming. As old Bill Shakespeare eloquently pointed out, a rose by any other name is still a rose.

When scientists first observed the rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels, they used the descriptive term, "greenhouse effect." This was intended to explain how the thickening layer of greenhouse gases was acting like the panes of glass in a greenhouse and heating the planet. Initially this was not an unwelcome concept for the often frozen residents of the Northern Hemisphere. As carbon dioxide levels continued to rise, primarily due to the habits of those same residents, scientists began calling the phenomenon "global warming." Unfortunately this label still wasn't enough to get our attention. And so we now call it "climate change", a horribly inadequate term, particularly given our essential belief that change is good.

In retrospect, if scientists had referred to our unintentional altering of our climate as, "an uncontrolled experiment capable of impacting all life on the planet at unprecedented speed and magnitude", maybe, just maybe, we would have paid attention a lot sooner.

But we didn't, because science is all about being able to replicate the results of experiments. And as climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider pointed out, since we only have one planet with which to experiment, this was unfortunately impossible. For the rest of us who are driven self-centered comfort - something that for now is doesn't lend itself particularly well to conserving fossil fuels, switching off the air-conditioner, or parking the car, van or SUV.

Which basically leads us to where we are today - tallying the smog days, the premature deaths that are attributed to air quality and heat stroke, and the deadly catastrophic storms with such lovely poetic names as Rita and Katrina.

Even the smaller unnamed storms, like the one that ripped through the province last week, leave their mark. When the winds had calmed and we tallied our losses, a half a dozen trees had fallen on our property. Each magnificent is tree no longer able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, no longer capable of helping to stem the tide of our demise, poetically and dramatically, adding its rotting biomass to the torrents of greenhouse gases already choking the atmosphere, changing the seasons.


Weather's fun. For up-to-date weather in your area, check out or

For more on the work renowned climatologist Dr. Stephen Schneider, visit


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