On Thursday 22 December 2011 at 12:30 A.M. EST the Earth’s axis reached its maximum tilt of 23.5 degrees – the winter solstice – ushering winter on Earth’s northern hemisphere. While this date and time mark the official start of winter in the northern hemisphere, numerous communities in various regions of the USA, including parts of the northwest, southwest and even the southeast, have already experienced heavy snowfall and have had to contend with all the misery, and danger, of whiteout conditions along major roadways, loss of power and just plain terrible wintry conditions over the past couple of weeks; for those folks winter had already arrived when the tilt of the Earth’s axis made it official yesterday morning.

On this second day of the 2011 northern hemisphere winter there is no tropical cyclone activity anywhere in the world, although a region of disturbed weather near the coast of Northern Australia is showing some signs of potential further development. The surface waters of the northern Pacific and Atlantic, as well as of the Gulf of Mexico a portions of the Caribbean continue to quickly cool down; these sea surface temperature conditions can be clearly seen on the color-coded satellite images below:

Sea surface temperature map of the northern Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico basins showing the continued cooling trend marking the advent of winter

Map showing sea surface water temperature conditions from the northeastern to the equatorial Pacific ocean on 23 December 2011

With the start of winter in the northern hemisphere we are only a few days away from the end of the calendar year 2011, and with very little potential for tropical cyclone development anywhere, it appears the year will close with quite a sub-par record of cyclogenesis on a worldwide basis for a second year in a row, although the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season was quite active in terms of number of storms. In this regard it is of interest to note that this year that is about to end was one marked by extreme weather events in the USA, including drought of historic proportions, severe flooding and tornado swarms, and in others parts of the world.

In reflecting about these contrasting weather events, many questions arise including: how much of this can be attributed to climate variability? and how much to climate change? As well as the long-debated perennial questions about the link between tropical cyclones and global warming. As we enter another northern hemisphere winter and, soon, a new calendar year, it is clear our scientific research community will need to pay close attention at weather events in the months ahead to see what additional data can be acquired that may contribute to clarifying uncertainties that remain in these fields. In this regard one critical issue is clear, much remains to be learned regarding the potential effects of global climate change at the regional and community levels, but at the same time much decisive action is needed now if we are to adapt to climatic conditions that already have brought and will continue to bring continuously escalating damage from the impact of related hazards. Said differently: we cannot afford to wait to have absolute certainty about the causality of weather and climate, if we are to stand a reasonable chance of reducing the potential for damage from the impact of such hazards the time for designing and implementing adaptation strategies IS NOW!

With these thoughts in mind, today is a good time to look at our planet from space, the one and only that all 7 billion of us humans share, and think about our shared vulnerability. Let us take a look at the composite satellite image below, which shows a full-disk view of Earth’s western hemisphere, and think long and hard about what we see in it: do we see national or political boundaries? Do we see weather patterns separated by country boundaries?  If it weren’t for the clouds could we even detect that thin veil that is the atmosphere, where less than 3 hundredths of one per cent of the volume of gases that are present, make the difference between human and other multi-celullar life existing or not on Earth.

Full-disk view of planet Earth's western hemisphere on 23 December 2011












Spaceship Earth: it is up to all of us members of humankind to maintain it livable and afloat, for if it sinks we all go down with it! Keep in mind that Mother Nature doesn’t know and does not respect national boundaries.




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