A week ago I was hunkered down in bed reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change by the LED light of a miner’s lamp. Well chosen bedtime story for the power outage following a huge storm. I chuckled at the irony, but the storm had been no laughing matter. Bryan Norcross of the Weather Channel had correctly predicted “a super-mega-combo freak of a storm slamming into the most populated part of the country.” That’s what we got.
My little farm house which has resisted wind, rain, hail, ice, and snow for the better part of 200 years came through intact. (It did get fortifications against violent weather in its recent renovation. Rotten sills were replaced and the wooden frame was bolted to the granite foundation.) None of the trees that I can see from the house had suffered more than light pruning. I did not know then that thousands of fellow denizens of the eastern seashore had been much less lucky — the second part of Norcross’ prediction come true.
Power outages infuriate me. As a colleague said, “they peel away the thin veneer of civilization from our lives.” Electrical wires strung pole to pole at the height of tree tops also sum up American business practices: take the cheapest, most expedient way even if its also ugly, prone to disruption and expensive to repair. On the other hand, regular power outages give businesses new markets for specialized products. The miner’s lamp marketed beyond West Virginia is an example. And then there is the industry of “storm chasers” with their chain saws and bucket trucks.
But reading Kolbert involved learning about much bigger catastrophes: “Ice core records show that we are steadily drawing closer to the temperature peaks of the last interglacial, when sea levels were some fifteen feet higher than they are today. Just a few degrees more and the earth will be hotter than it has been at any time since our species evolved. The feedbacks that have been identified in the climate system — the ice-albedo feedback, the water vapor feedback, the feedback between temperatures and carbon storage in the permafrost — take small changes to the system and amplify them into much larger forces.” (pg 188)
No single storm is, by itself, evidence of global warming but we had a 100-year flood In March 2010 and took a brutal battering from Hurricane Irene a year ago September. Sunday I walked the beach from Matunuck almost to Moonstone to gawk at the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy. The realtors’ admonishment, “location, location, location,” had once made these properties choice. But the virulence of storms and possibly other factors have turned that truism on its head. Despite great differences in the expenditures on the houses, their location right on the beach proved their undoing as man, nature and climate change lashed against one another last week.