I find myself on the other side of the globe in the United Kingdom - sipping on a cup of tea, looking out my window, and listening to the rain hit the lush trees and pavement on what has become a rainy day. This morning, as I jogged through the town moor, which is a common land area where people can rent space to graze their cows on, I had a true agility test as I dodged the cows grazing on the soggy grass and the splattered cow patties. The two things that strike me the most here in the UK is how green everything is (especially after coming from California and our drought), and how prevalent livestock are. I mean, here I was, running in the middle of a major city where the scenery looked like the picture on my milk carton!
During my jog, I stumbled across one of the most professional community gardens I've seen. It was open to the public today, so I walked through to see if I could get any tips to revive my little garden back in parched California. The wind blew moist air in my face with a signal that it might rain, and when I told one of the gardeners that I was from California, she asked me why I didn't bring them any sun. I came across a bed of California poppies that nearly dwarfed the ones perched along the Highway 1 or in the Santa Cruz Mountain meadows, and thought they looked quite content being in the a place with so much rain. The rain began and a man approached me to say: "I apologize on behalf of the rain - it's 7 minutes late" insinuating that the rain was ill-mannered.
The UK is finding itself in its wettest year on record (since 1910), and in some parts of England and Wales (since 1766)! The BBC has reported that about 6,500 homes have been affected by flooding since December, with many people forced to evacuate their homes. In response to the floods, the UK government has provided grants, as of April 1st, for homeowners in England hit by the flood and for farmers with devastated land.
Coming from California, where we are experiencing one of our driest years on record and plans for the Drought Emergency Bill are underway, it seems almost too familiar that both of our societies are at the mercy of weather. And, even more ironically, there is now evidence that these extreme drought and flooding events nearly on opposite sides of the globe are potentially linked.
In the UK, meteorologists have attributed the unusually wet year to a powerful Atlantic Jet Stream that has been creating more frequent and persistent low-pressure areas. The low-pressure zones have brought high winds from the southwest that have also brought the excess rain this past winter.
So what’s the link? According to a recent report released by the UK Meteorological office in February 2014, the low pressure areas over the Atlantic that have been responsible for bringing in the stormy weather is actually caused by same Arctic air that descended upon North America this past winter notoriously known as the Polar Vortex.
The Polar Vortex, as sinister and fleeting as its name evokes, is actually a permanent feature that sits on top of the northern hemisphere (and it's more persistent twin sits over the Antarctic on the other end of the globe!). The Polar Vortex effectively acts like a gatekeeper of cold Arctic air. In most years, the configuration of the Polar Vortex is tight and the Arctic air is retained at the pole. However, this year, the wonky configuration of the Polar Vortex caused cold arctic air to leak out of the poles and into the streets of NYC.
The juxtaposition of the high-pressure system trapped by the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge off the coast of California and the low-pressure system in the eastern US are also related and have been building in intensity since 2000. Like yin and yang, low and high pressure systems fuel each other and their direction are influenced by the Earth's rotation. However, in the case of the extreme weather events that we have been collectively experiencing, human-induced warming has been attributed to its cause in recent paper published by S.-Y Wang in Geophysical Research Letters.
Some scientists are, however, beginning to suspect that global climate change and the loss of sea ice in the Arctic may be attributing to the extreme weather events that have been witnessed in the United States and Europe.
Lots more research is needed to really understand how the absorption of solar heat in ice-free waters in the can impact ocean circulation and atmospheric patterns. And if these conditions are to become more of the norm, we need to start planning on how we can we adapt, not only colder or warmer temperatures but changes to our local hydrological conditions.