Note from the Editor: In the coming months, the Beacon will attempt to collect articles with facts about how climate change is impacting Andover, its citizens, businesses, environment, ecology, agriculture, and tourism. In addition to articles, we also welcome letters that adhere to our Letters policy at AndoverBeacon.com/Letters.
If you have an idea for an article about how climate change relates directly to Andover, or if you wish to tell us about your solar panels, EV car, or other attempts to mitigate climate change, send your thoughts to Articles@nullAndoverBeacon.com along with your contact information.
To get things started, we asked former science teacher and former New Hampshire legislator Ken Wells to explain some of the basics.
Remember that show? You know the one — disaster seemed imminent, decisive action was required. But the greedy, cowardly authority figures froze? Fortunately, our hero stepped up and did the difficult thing that needed to be done, and saved the day!
It may be possible to name dozens, perhaps even hundreds of thrillers whose plot follows a storyline like this one. But this time, it’s no fiction thriller – it’s real. The future of all of humanity, indeed most every species on Earth depends on our heroic action and sacrifice now, in the nick of time.
That’s the dire warning in the 2021 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The Earth’s climate has already begun a sharp turn, and it is “unequivocally” caused by civilization’s consumption of coal, petroleum and natural gas: the so-called “fossil fuels.”
I approach doomsday predictions with a degree of skepticism. Why do those people think those things? Why should we trust them? Even if true, will it have any effect on my life in Andover? What can I do? What can other Andover citizens do, or, what are they already doing to help alleviate the situation in some small way?
If what the IPCC report says is true, these could be the most consequential questions of our age.
In my previous life as a science teacher, I began every Environmental Chemistry course by asking students “How do we know what we know”? As a grade school student, I placed all my trust in Messrs. Funk and Wagnalls and their excellent encyclopedia as my sole source of authoritative knowledge.
Today, we use the web for up-to-date info, but we must be mindful of its quality. If “somebody on the internet” shares information with us, how do we know whether we can trust it?
There are a few clues: if the URL begins with “http”, not “https”, their true identity may be masked. If it ends in “dot com”, the host is possibly a commercial site trying to get us to “buy” something, to their economic advantage. If it’s “dot org”, they are probably a non-profit whose mission might be to educate generally, or to serve their narrower ideological purpose. And if it’s “dot gov”,…well, that ought to be trustworthy, but how many people these days trust that their own government actually serves them, and not some other powerful group?
Truth does not become uncertain, even if some loud voices object to it. Depending on which political “bubble” we frequent, we could see only one of two contradictory “feeds” of reality, as if we were living in the “red pill/blue pill” world of the sci-fi film, The Matrix.
Undoubtedly, the best confidence that “we know what we know” is from observations made and recorded ourselves, multiple times. Then we’ll know how much the measurements “scatter” around our average value. This scatter is referred to among scientists as “plus-or-minus” or “uncertainty.”
Every measurement made has some degree of uncertainty; the use of this term in a scientific context rarely casts any doubt on the researchers’ published conclusions. On the contrary, if the degree of uncertainty is very narrow, the researchers will be very confident they have nailed the conclusion. This is the case with the recent UN report. (Uh-oh!)
Weather Change vs. Climate Change
Confusion exists between “weather” events (e.g. the Blizzard of ’78) and “climate,” which is the name for a long-term trend of weather in a specified region. The joke is that New England weather can change from one extreme to another in just 15 minutes. Of great concern to the thousands of scientists of the UN IPCC is the mounting evidence that the climate of the entire globe is changing on the timescale of decades and centuries, and accelerating.
Can both of these views be true, yet appear contradictory? Yes. You have seen this playing out in recent years right here in Andover and the surrounding areas (less snow for ski areas, shorter maple sugaring seasons, less brilliant fall foliage, disappearing honey bees, less productive gardens due to the lack of pollinators or enough rainfall, higher temperatures, and an increase in pests of all sorts migrating north, to name a few).
Mount Washington Observatory
I had an excellent tour a couple years ago at the Mount Washington Observatory, one of the foremost high-altitude research facilities on this planet. They were publishing a decades-long trend of change, not in “warming” summer highs, but in the minimum temperatures observed during the last century.
The coldest winter temperatures simply aren’t as cold as a few decades ago. Winter no longer kills back the ticks, poison ivy vines, and timber-destroying insects such as pine beetle and hemlock wooly adelgid.
A large corroborating study was supported in part by New Hampshire’s own Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest near Woodstock, New Hampshire. See esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eap.1974. This study examined weather data from 1917 to 2017 and found the length of our winters (from Wisconsin to Maine) become shorter by 0.9 to 2.3 days per decade.
This promises to have a profound negative impact on rural New Hampshire communities like Andover, where so many economic activities depend on the seasonality of our climate. Snowfall, streamflow, foliage, and wildlife attract visitors, summer people, and new residents to enrich our communities and local economies. See nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/18/.
The trends are alarming! I recall our barn thermometer in East Andover recording a -38 degree “cold snap” in the early 1990s. Recently, wintertime lows rarely dip below zero. Perhaps you can write to the Beacon about your recollections of your gardens, ice thickness, or ice-out dates?
The show is almost over. Who will be our heroes to save the day? As some New York City COVID-19 first responders’ t-shirts said, “Nobody’s coming. It’s up to us.”