After the Fall: Global Warming and Disappearing Seasons

Michael H. Glantz
16 November 2007

After the Fall: Global Warming and Disappearing Seasons

 

A recent headline in the tongue-in-cheek weekly American newspaper The Onion read as follows: "Fall Canceled after 3 Billion Seasons." When I saw the headline, I laughed out loud. The headline is funny, and it was meant to be, but it represents the tip of the global warming iceberg (to mix a metaphor).

The article was headlined as being from Washington, DC, and started off as follows:

Fall, the long-running series of shorter days and cooler nights, was canceled earlier this week after nearly 3 billion seasons on Earth ... The classic period of the year, which once occupied a coveted slot between Summer and Winter, will be replaced by new, stifling humidity levels, near-constant sunshine, and almost no precipitation for months.

The termination of a season or, more dramatically, the death of a season -- Fall, for example --should raise eyebrows everywhere. Stated like a headline, a season that disappears after 3 billion years makes me wonder about what else related to the seasons (to which we have become accustomed) will disappear. In the past decade, I have heard that the ice on various lakes in the northern central United States is no longer strong enough to support ice fishermen and their equipment. I have also heard that cross-country skiing in the same region has all but disappeared, but for a few weeks or so remaining of the region's expected months-long winter season.

Ski seasons in the western United States have become more variable, and this year, 2007, snow-making machines are being used to generate snow cover so that resorts may be able to open on time, or maybe open at all. The problem is that over the past few decades, winters have in general become drier and warmer in this region. Rainy seasons have become less so, not necessarily abruptly but incrementally over time. In other words, the seasons are shifting and changing almost imperceptibly, but over time those changes are accumulating to become more visible as they trend toward crises. Multiyear droughts in Australia and in the southeastern United States have generated discussion about the aridification of these regions, and some observers are linking such changes -- in intensity and frequency in weather and climate extremes -- to global warming. Is the climate of the Earth trending irreversibly toward the characteristics of what might amount to a perennial, everlasting Summer?

This is an aspect of the consequences of global warming that faces humanity: changes in the growing seasons' lengths as well as precipitation timing and amount; changes in the snowfall season, the rainy season, the hunting season, the fishing season, the water season, changes in timing of and increases in vector-borne diseases, and so forth. Speculation about the foreseeable impacts of climate change is virtually boundless.

These changes will affect settlements worldwide in ways that most communities are just beginning to think about: chronic water shortages worldwide (as in the Eastern Congo), recurrent and prolonged drought (as in Australia and Southeast US), an increase in the number and frequency of famines, and perhaps a shift in their locations, and a shortening or lengthening of local and regional climate, water, and weather-related hazards.

Hints of permanent seasonal changes have not been a major concern, so it seems, of societies. In fact, people are moving all the time to different locations, so on a personal level they often undergo a climate change. (My own mother moved from the cold and wet northeastern United States to the hot and arid southwest upon retirement, and a few years later she moved again to the hot and humid southeast. She lived in three totally different climates and managed to adjust, but she had the mobility, the family network, and the financial resources to do so.)

Settlements, cities, megacities, and entire societies (and perhaps even civilizations) may not be so lucky to adjust in a timely way to changes in climate, water, and weather-related hazards and their impacts. Whereas my mother could choose a climate type (and with it, known hazards) to her liking, settlements are not so mobile and cannot choose the type of regional climate and weather that will result from a warming of the atmosphere.

The Onion concluded its article on the end of Fall in the following way: "Though thousands have signed Internet petitions to save Fall, and protests have been scheduled throughout the week, many are skeptical that they will ever see the temperate season again."

--Michael H. Glantz

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