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Sudden Spring

There is nothing to write about in old St Paul right now except the Surprise Spring of 2012.  It’s been 80F for days now, smashing old high temperature records by 10 degrees or more.  We’re all giddy from the June that fell onto us in March.

Could there possibly be a downside to it?  Maybe.  It does bring up a few unrelated stories that show us that change, even when it seems to be for the better, has its own ways.

The first story of the weather is St Patrick’s Day, always big in this old railroad town.   This year, the green bacchanal collided with the great weather, no less than two hockey games at the Xcel Center, and the calendar that placed it on a Saturday.  West Seventh Street, my neighborhood, relies on this date to put the madness into March.

The eight establishments that serve alcohol along West Seventh in the two blocks from Walnut to Chestnut to Kellogg are always packed, but this year’s tent parties went huge.  By 8PM the crowd spilled over the sidewalk and was stopping traffic.  There were rumors that people were hit by cars, though I can’t confirm this.  By 8PM the last hockey game had a full arena of 24k people at one end of a street bubbling beyond capacity, perhaps already 10k people.  The St Paul Police had to act fast.

What they decided to do was not use force of any kind.  They shut West Seventh, a state highway, and turned it over to the crowd.  An informal “beergarden” was declared and open alcohol laws were temporarily ignored.  A man wandering past the barricade at Walnut was not told to ditch his beer – the police on duty asked him, “Could you please not take that past?  Thanks.”  They were cheerful, mellow, and enjoying the mild night as much as the revelers.

The contrast between this spontaneous event and the tense Republican Convention of 2008 could not be more stark.  I have never been more proud of our police.  They kept order without insisting on command, they kept peace with a smile.  What could have been a riot was turned into the biggest party we might ever throw, an instant Mardi Gras, with very few medical emergencies.  West Seventh was re-opened around 11PM when the crowds thinned.

That’s not the only strangeness that came from this weather, however.  That same night we were enjoying Sudden Spring, 36 inches of snow fell in Flagstaff, Arizona.  A massive bubble of cold air reached deep into the Rocky Mountain states, temporarily rendering the weather map of the US a longitudinal oddity.  Our strange weather is only half of the story.  What could possibly cause this?

It’s important to say that the mild weather over the US is not a simple case of global warming.  Europe was incredibly cold this Winter, with snow falling in Rome and desperate cold lingering over central Asia far deeper and longer than usual.

What could cause weather this uneven?  Those of you who know me won’t be surprised by my answer.  In 2010 we entered a period of solar activity unlike anything seen since 1850.  Sunspots, a rough measure of solar energy, stopped appearing for the first time in 60 years.  The ionized particles that jet out from the sun collapsed, lowering the earth’s magnetic shielding to levels never before measured.  A brief burst made the news recently, but the sun has been unusually quiet.

What this means is that earth is almost certainly cooling down.  It takes a long time to happen, however, because the heat capacity of this planet is large, so the effects are hitting us now.  It’s not a uniform reduction in temperature, but a great increase in chaos as the seas stay pretty even but large land masses absorb less energy.  Our Gulf of Mexico is probably protecting us, at least for now.

This is going to be one Hell of a ride for a few years.  We don’t really know how it will go.

The last strange effect of good weather over North America worthy of note comes in government statistics.  We’ve had some very good economic news lately, showing increased confidence and a big boost in construction activity.  Mild weather has made a lot of that possible.  Ups and downs through the course of the year are supposed to be evened out by “seasonal adjustment” in most of the reported figures, but those won’t kick into Spring mode for another month.  Everything could look a lot worse in April when the adjustments kick in, unless more momentum builds.  Keep your eyes open on this one.

Could this Sudden Spring get any stranger?  The answer is, of course, things can always get loopier.  But most of us are just enjoying it, like an amazingly warm St Patrick’s Day out on West Seventh.

13 thoughts on “Sudden Spring

  1. I am very glad I stayed away from W7th on Saturday. I heard it was bad but I didn’t know it got this out of hand. The weather is really too good to be true – scary in a way that makes me wonder what the summer will be like.

    • One thing I didn’t get into is that we should have a mild summer, too – the relatively weak magnetic field around the earth should let in more cosmic rays, which seed more clouds. I think this will hold through the summer – but if we have strange patterns like we have now I’ll bet there will be severe storms like crazy on the plains.

  2. St Paul has the best cops for sure. No question they are the pros.
    You want to talk weather chaos look at how different this year is from last. We had something like six feet of snow on the ground at this time last year. Now we have a drought in the works and summer in March.

    • Isn’t it one Hell of a comparison? But you would expect that the first thing to happen in the atmosphere as we cool down is that all the water would fall out – which did indeed happen all around the world in 2011. Now, it’s just chaotic.
      But we have to be careful taking what we experience and attributing it to a warming/cooling trend. Things are strange worldwide, and that’s what we can say for sure. We also know that the sun has gone relatively dormant for the first time since the 1950s, at least.
      But a couple of years on a planet 6 billion years old just doesn’t register as much. Big chaos to little creatures like us is just “normal” to Earth. :-)

  3. It would be interesting to find out when people first heard of global warming. I graduated high school in 1982 and I can’t recall that it was on the radar at the time. During college 1982-1986, I can’t recall if global warming was a term I encountered. I’m a social sciene major, so I suppose there’s no reason I should have heard of it. But I did take a couple of physical science courses that never mentioned global warming. By the late 1980s I think global warming was piercing the popular consciousness. Then Vice President Gore started talking about it.

    • I’m not going to say that Global Warming isn’t real. But there are effects from the sun and so many other things that it is clearly complicated, at best. I’ve also done far too much work with IR analysis to think that CO2 is so much more important than all the water in the troposphere – in fact, the latter should have about 40x the “greenhouse” potential of CO2.
      However, burning so much hydrocarbon that we can see our atmosphere change is just not a good thing. That’s even without the nitrous oxides and sulfur oxides that come with it – there are economic costs and so many other things. Nearly every war since WWI has had oil as a major mover of strategy and operations. It’s just not a good thing!
      But we are in a cooling trend now and we will see just how anthropomorphic (man-made) the previous warming has been. My guess has always been half or less.

  4. What is interesting is that coal is still being used as a energy source. I know it burns more cleanly these days; but isn’t a switchover a no-brainer. Of course there are geographical/ political interests. I wonder if somebody can estimate how time and money it would cost the world to convert completetly from coal to natural gas for electricity supply. Natural gas runs the electricity plants for the Las Vegas area.

    • Those coal plants are paid for, and probably have a 50+ year lifetime. I understand that new regulations are going to make many go away sooner than they would otherwise, but conversion is going to be slow with such big capital investments. At some point there’s a lesson from SimCity. :-)
      Seriously, we converted a plant here in St Paul (the High Bridge Plant) and it’s going well. Once we have the methane economy I’m sure we can start developing a lot of renewable ways of producing a big share of the energy we need, too. We’ll get there, I’m sure.

  5. Pingback: Buzzer Beater | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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