The snowballing climate science Jefferson would have understood

  • Keith Peterson

    Keith Peterson

Posted6/4/2019 1:00 AM

When you enter the National Climatic Data Center in Ashville, North Carolina, you find a ledger in a glass case that contains carefully gathered climate records from 18th century Northern Virginia -- specifically Monticello and the records are in Thomas Jefferson's own hand.

Jefferson, like any good farmer, paid close attention to the weather and today farmers in downstate Illinois are paying very close attention indeed as record flooding disrupts their planting season.


The Economist noted this week that farmers in the region assessing the damage from the swollen Illinois River and other river systems are talking more about climate change. Hearing dry statistics about a one- or two-degree rise in temperature is one thing, but looking at your submerged fields is another. Seeing, as they say, is believing.

In March, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, with support from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, issued a report that found that temperatures in the Great Lakes Region since 1901 have increased 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit compared with a mean temperature rise of 1.2 percent in the rest of the country. Warmer air carries more moisture and so more snow, rain and flooding can be expected in our region, especially if projections of greater increases in temperature are borne out.

Global temperatures are tracked by a consortium of organizations that includes, in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. Along with cooperating counterparts in Britain and Japan, scientists gather data from thousands of sensors around the globe. This is a daunting task, but decades of experience, improved algorithms and more sophisticated computer models make the data and forecasts increasingly accurate. That data is gathered in Ashville.

Our federal government is currently conflicted about climate change. The President has, at various times, called it a hoax. However, executive branch agencies from NOAA, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency to the Pentagon study it, make assessments and engage in contingency planning.

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In the Illinois River basin some are making plans, too. The Economist article interviews a woman whose restaurant is threatened by rising waters. She comforts herself with the thought that "God has a plan." Her 18-year-old waitress thinks that that is all well and good, but perhaps the restaurant should be moved to higher ground.

The Illinois legislature has just passed a $45 billion infrastructure bill with the majority of the money going to roads, bridges and transportation. It is certainly true that those things have been neglected for far too long. However, if our region is going to be dealing with more frequent "100-year storms" then we also have to be thinking of projects that will mitigate the worst impacts of more severe weather.

In this case, an ounce of prevention is going to be worth more than a pound of cure. A recent federal study calculated that damage caused by climate change has cost $350 billion in the U.S. over the past decade.

Three years ago February, Oklahoma Sen, James Inhofe took to the floor of the Senate during a cold snap in usually mild Northern Virginia and brought, as a prop, a snowball to "prove" that climate change or global warming was a hoax. The problem is, the weather is not the climate.


Over the past two months, more than 50 tornadoes have ravaged Inhofe's state during a particularly active storm season. Climate scientists have been warning us warmer temperatures will mean more violent storms.

Jefferson, a man of science, would have understood. A snowball on the Senate floor? He would not have understood that.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

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