Were the ‘Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award’ still around to be awarded on a global basis, the jet stream that is currently playing fast and loose with our weather in the UK would, with a bit of updating of the criteria, be a prime candidate for a fickleness award. At any rate, there seems to be a good chance that it could be a pointer to our possible fate where our climate is concerned.
A word of explication might be in order here. Between 1968 and 1973, NBC in the USA broadcast a satirical programme titled Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which provided, in the words of entertainment.ha.com, ‘a heady dose of comedy and biting satire during a turbulent period in history, and in the process boosted the careers of Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, and others.’ The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award was used on the show, we are reminded, in a ‘recurring segment that “lauded” noteworthy, dubious achievements by celebrities or government officials. Recipients of this uncoveted award included then Los Angeles Chief of Police Ed Davis, who suggested that gallows be put in all airports so hijackers could be hung on the spot; the City of Cleveland for their Cuyahoga River (it caught fire due to its high pollution levels); and William F. Buckley for his philosophy “Never clarify tomorrow what you can obscure today”.’*
Television was not available to South Africans between 1968 and 1973 because, as Dr Albert Hertzog, the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, kindly explained in 1959: ‘The effect of the wrong pictures on children, the less developed and other races can be destructive.’ But, once television had been introduced in 1976, there was an obvious need for those South Africans who had TVs to have their attention distracted from the vicious cruelties of apartheid outside their windows, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was apparently (and often somewhat mistakenly) seen by the apartheid government as a politically inoffensive distraction.
All of which is something of a diversion from the path of the jet stream. It is raining off-and-on again today, as it has been for most of the month. This is because, as the weather forecasts have explained, and can be seen from the weather map above, the UK is caught in a low-pressure loop in the jet stream, and has been trapped in the same loop throughout this month. Parts of the UK have had three times their average May rainfall already, and our average temperature has been two degrees centigrade below the May average. This follows one of the driest, and certainly the frostiest, April on record with frosts somewhere in UK every night. May 2020, by contrast, as I wrote in June last year, ‘was the driest May on record in England and the sunniest month ever, at least as far back as records go; this spring’s sunshine hours smashed the previous record by all of 70 hours, and have only been exceeded by summer sunshine hours in three previous years.’ So ‘fickle’ seems an appropriate word.
The extreme variations from year to year in UK suggest that something significant is going on weather-wise. This would seem to be backed up by what appear to be increasingly extreme weather events around the globe. Prolonged droughts leading to devastating wild fires, increasingly frequent and violent hurricanes and cyclones, and serious floods all come to mind. In his 2003 book Inevitable Surprises Peter Schwartz doesn’t regard global climate change as being a surprise ‘because most of us (by now) have seen it coming’ (p.207).** Donald Trump hadn’t put his ornamental head above the political parapet by then. But what will be a surprise, Schwartz suggests on the basis of analysis of the fossil record, will be the speed of its impact: ‘The pattern is consistent: hundreds or even thousands of years of steady-state equilibrium. Then an abrupt shift, in as short a time as a decade, can alter temperature and rainfall patterns, and ocean currents.’ (p.208)
So what could happen in the next decade that could provide us with a distraction from worrying about Covid-19? As global temperatures rise, mainly as a result of human activity and the carbon emissions that activity produces, the polar ice caps and the glacial ice in Greenland are melting and cold freshwater is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean. There is a serious possibility that this could result in the ocean currents being ‘forced into new patterns’, as Schwartz puts it. Put more bluntly, it could arrest the flow of the Gulf Stream that warms North Eastern Europe. This has apparently happened before – most recently around ten thousand years ago. Schwartz quotes Dr Robert Gagosian’s suggestion as to what might happen next: ‘Average winter temperatures could drop by 5 degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States, and by 10 degrees in the North-eastern United States and in Europe. That’s enough to send mountain glaciers advancing down from the Alps. To freeze rivers and harbours and bind North Atlantic shipping lanes in ice…. These changes could happen within a decade, and they could persist for hundreds of years.’ (p.209)
Schwartz doesn’t claim that this particular manifestation of global climate change is ‘inevitable’, it is merely a distinct possibility. But, given the manifest fickleness of our current weather patterns, those of us in UK who live on the front line where that particular manifestation of climate change is concerned had better not be fooled by talk of ‘global warming’ into packing our winter woollies too far away. Speaking for myself, as I clean out the shed in preparation for its demolition, I will make sure not to throw away my good-as-new snow-shovel that hasn’t been needed even once in the past fifteen years.
** Peter Schwartz, Inevitable Surprises, London: Free Press, 2003.