Every morning, I check in on the weather; you likely do as well. By the time I was in fifth grade, I walked independently to my neighborhood school, so the weather check was essential early in the day in preparation for the morning walk and the late afternoon return home. Even when it rained, and I turned back trying to pout my way into a ride, my father or mother would say, “You’re not made of sugar, you won’t melt.” I didn’t melt then, yet now in real time with the melting of arctic ice, an increase in extreme weather events across our globe raises the question — what is climate and what does it have to do with us? Stated simply, weather tells you what clothes to wear and climate tells you what clothes to own.
Combining measurements of temperature, moisture levels, potential for precipitation, clear skies and/or sun, projecting variability throughout the day or hazardous conditions, climate science data is translated into practical information for the public via weather reports that have been an important guide for making our personal and community lives functional and safe. Respect for weather hazards, hand in hand with the development of local and national emergency management requirements, remains one of the many hallmarks of community safety and public health standards developed throughout the last century that are intended to reduce risk.
My first experience of extreme weather was Hurricane Hazel in 1954. After devastating Haiti, Hazel came ashore in Virginia and moved fiercely on land north through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, hitting Toronto where it is still considered “the” storm of the 20th century. In our neighborhood at the northwestern edge of the city of Baltimore, adjacent to a woodland park, Lake Roland, the electricity went out early. The candlelit rooms, normally associated with the joys of Christmas, eerily combined with dense change of atmospheric pressure in the environment — a visceral warning that animal and human bodies naturally register.
That night, post storm, suited up in my kindergarten raincoat and new rain boots, my 28-year old father gathered me up, and we headed outside to circle our cul-de-sac of modest Cape Cod homes. I can still remember the body sensations of fear and wonder in response to the sensory inputs as we came upon downed trees and wires illuminated by the blinking lights of emergency vehicles in the novel complete darkness of our neighborhood. That night the word my grandmother used for boots, galoshes, which I had never understood finally made sense to me as I was permitted to galosh my way in the draining high water. In my recent experience, the August 2018 non-hurricane-related extreme weather event in the Finger Lakes pushed my focus on understanding more about weather, climate events as well as personal and community health risks.
What is climate?
The weather reports we rely on generally reflect day-to-day activities in our atmosphere or our human activity in the zone between the earth and the stratosphere, known as the troposphere. “Beam me up Scotty” comes quickly to mind simply by typing the word stratosphere; we are far more knowledgeable of activities in the fictional stratospheres of our beloved TV shows and movies than the sound observations that earth and climate science have to offer.
According to Wikipedia, climate is the term for the averaging of atmospheric conditions over time, a calculation based on repeated measurements. Climate data thus reflects changes over time in the atmosphere using standardized advanced measurement tools not unlike the way CAT or MRI scans measure and detect both health and disease in the human body over time. Current climate data reflects that our planetary body, the earth, is critically threatened. In this regard, as the earth is our home, we are in danger.
In the presence of dangerous risk, denial of personal health risks is not a response; it is a defensive reaction. And while denial is useful for children, for adults the denying of, for example, physical symptoms known to be cancer risks, contributes to an increase in morbidity and mortality. Denial of risks observed on the body of the earth related to valid climate data based on observations over time will make our future and that of our families and communities more dangerous, more expensive and potentially more deadly. In the face of risk, education is the core to the establishment of risk reduction strategies.
The need to know
Our family started camping at Treman and Taughannock Falls state parks in the Finger Lakes region in the early 1990s, at that time we lived in the rural remain of Cold Spring, a bike ride from Cape May, N.J. where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware River, the most southern tip of what was historically known as the Garden State. Starting in the mid-80s, I had a small farm-to-table business growing herbs and produce for the noted restaurants there. When my beautiful Jersey tomatoes developed an irritating blight, I went to the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension for help. An analyzed sample of the damage showed that the crop challenge was the result of particle pollution from the coal fired furnaces in the Great Lakes Region, carried by the prevailing winds towards the southeast.
Now over 30 years later, what is considered extreme climate change, measured at 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit, is present in the U.S. Remembering that water freezes at 32 degrees, the annual temperature change for Cape May County, N.J. between 1895-2018 has now reached a critical 35.78 degrees. Based on the same data for U.S. counties, Seneca County has experienced change to 33.44 degrees and along with it well documented symptoms of warming effects in our region.
If you, like me, are searching to understand the increase in extreme weather events in the context of the risks our communities might suffer now and in the future; if you, like me, would like to learn more about earth science and how earth scientists understand changes in climate health, and if you, like me, long for more productive community discourse on risk and risk preparedness, you are invited to an educational forum with Don Haas and Ingrid Zabel from The Paleontological Research Institution on Oct. 22 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at South Seneca High School in Ovid. For more information about this event, contact Seneca Towns Engaging People for Solutions at stepscommunity@S2aynetwork.org