Eco Paddler: Weather and Climate 101, for Paddlers

Opinion: It's time to step out of the gale of the climate change debate and make a plan

STRANGE CHANGE: The NOAA report notes longer, more intense hurricane seasons that paddlers of all stripes should heed. PHOTO: Sean Gardner/Getty

STRANGE CHANGE: The NOAA report notes longer, more intense hurricane seasons that paddlers of all stripes should heed. PHOTO: Sean Gardner/Getty

I'm not sure how it's possible, but there seems to still be some confusion (mostly in the United States), on whether the Earth is warming, whether the ice is melting, and what sea level rise really means for the planet's future. Not only that, but there are also some questions among a small but vocal sector, about the role that humans are playing in the changing conditions, if indeed said conditions are changing at all.

It is easy to tumble down the rabbit hole here, especially when confronted with anti-intellectual buffoonery that feigns debate, despite insisting that it already has all the answers it needs.

First of all, climate change is not something that requires belief. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it so well, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." What science depends on is understanding and, when the pursuit of understanding comes up short, it is the nature of science to resume the search rather than cling desperately to unworkable dogma.

In February of 2015, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma made a presentation on the floor of the US Senate. Inhofe, a climate change doubter, brought a snowball onto the Senate floor as "evidence" that the idea of global warming is nothing more than an elaborate lie. (He even wrote a book, "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future." Seriously.) What Sen. Inhofe fails to understand, however, is the difference between climate and weather, and his smarmy lecture confusing the two would be funnier if he were not the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, with jurisdiction over the climate issues he does not believe exist.

If we are frequent paddlers, we are tuned into the weather and its changes on a regular basis. When the wind picks up and starts blowing the tops off of the waves out in the channel, we will often stay on shore if we can until the conditions improve. That is weather. If, on the other hand, the winds are hurricane-force, and we start to see more of these violent storms occurring with greater frequency, to the point that we are on shore far more than we are out on the water, we are likely talking about climate.

When we have a seasonable winter, when the lake doesn't freeze and we can paddle on open water on St. Anthony's Day, that is weather. When the lake is warm enough to do rescue clinics in January and we haven't had snow in almost a decade, now we're looking at more of a climate issue. High tide and wind combining to make it difficult to find a camp spot on the beach? That's weather. The beach gone altogether because of sea level rise? That's climate.

It is a question of sustained effects, of how long-range and how pivotal the changes are over time. In the Pacific, the soaring ocean temperatures are setting this winter up to be the strongest El Niño for decades, maybe ever. Last summer saw the hottest months on record and 2015 looks to be the hottest ever worldwide, shattering the previous highs that were recorded just the year before. In the Arctic, sea ice levels were the fourth lowest since satellite recording began, a fact that has repercussions all over the northern hemisphere. (For reference, the nine lowest amounts of arctic ice in the satellite era have all occurred in the last nine years.)

There are those who essentially maintain that global warming is false because they had to wear sweaters yesterday. The reality is that there is no controversy of fact. Global climate change, as an observable phenomenon, is not open to debate. There are debates to be had about what needs to be done, about how our lives will be affected, and the changes that all of us will need to make, but to debate whether a large shift is happening is merely to waste more precious time.

When we are out on the water and conditions change, we adapt. We go to plan B, try to get to a place where we can make further decisions in safety, out of the gale. Although the issues related to climate change will have impacts that last longer than any single storm, our response needs to be the same. Get to the calm, out of the manufactured noise of ignorant rhetoric, and make your own decisions based on understanding instead of belief.

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