18 August 2010

Apocalypse Later

The heat and smoke situation has improved significantly in Moscow, but things are not back to normal.  I arrived to Moscow early this morning to be greeted the by the lingering stench of ongoing forest fires around Moscow.  However, the visibility and air quality is much better than it was a week ago.
A Fine Day:  Things are Clearing Up in Moscow

I described the situation as "being in a pressure cooker" to someone in the US.  Basically, the temperature was hot and getting hotter, there was no breeze, and smoke concentration kept increasing, as if Moscow itself was cooking.  I also remarked to my wife that the ecological disaster that we were witnessing felt like a dress rehearsal for something far more apocalyptic in our lifetimes.
Moscow Circa August 2010

An article by the title of "Part of the main:  How the heatwave in Russia is connected to floods in Pakistan" in the latest issue of the Economist  does a good job of describing how the local weather system (around Moscow) feeds itself:
High pressure makes it hard for clouds to form, and thus for rain to fall. Under cloudless skies, the surface gives up its moisture, making the ground level hotter and drier while not increasing the chances of rain. As things get drier, fires start and spread. The still air keeps the smoke close to the surface, exacerbating its effects on health. The soot heats the air further. This is what has been happening in Russia for the past two months.
What this article does not mention is how people's habits can also exacerbate the heat problem.  As I strolled through forests around Moscow not long ago, I noticed freshly-burned firewood where someone had probably made shashlik.  At the local train station, I was behind a couple who flicked their still-lit cigarettes into the bush before getting on the train.  All this happened as the fires were raging.  Obviously, those who lit the firewood in the forest and the smokers saw no connection between actions like theirs and the stifling smoke everywhere.

In any case, the article also does a fine job of connecting the raging fires in Russia for the disastrous floods in Pakistan and goes on to say
If you take into account the warming trend of the past half century, however, the extraordinary heatwave starts to look less improbable: a once-in-a-century event, perhaps. As the warming trend continues in future, the chances of such events being repeated yet more frequently will become higher still ...
Both heatwaves and heavy precipitation are more common everywhere than they were 50 years ago. Reflecting the latter trend, the Indian monsoon has been seeing more of its rainfall in extreme events than it did in the past. No single one of those events can be directly attributed to climate change; nor can Russia’s heatwave. The pattern of increases, though, fits expectations—and those expectations see things getting worse. 
Unfortunately, my off-the-cuff remarks of this ecological disaster being a dress rehearsal for something worse to come in our lifetimes seems prescient of an apocalypse, sometimes later.
 Bravely Riding into the Future

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