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Go North, Young Man

Go North, Young Man

There may be winners as well as losers in a changed natural world. Climate change models project greater average temperature increases in polar regions than in the tropics; also more rainfall in the tropics and less water in areas like the American Southwest. Evidence is now overwhelming that the far north is getting warmer – melting polar icecap, retreating glaciers, animal and plant species extending their ranges northward and to higher altitudes. Northern winters are becoming milder and growing seasons are getting longer.

UCLA geography professor Laurence C. Smith‘s 2010 book, “The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future,” suggests that the human adventure will increasingly take place in the “New North” – all land and oceans lying 45 degrees North latitude or higher, an area currently shared by eight countries. The United States makes the list mostly because of “Seward’s Icebox,” the derisive name politicians once gave to Alaska .

Climate models forecast average temperature variables; building an igloo in front of the U.S. Congress after a snowstorm might be an effective political attack on Al Gore and scientists who tell us that Earth is heating up from human activities, but the informed observer rates the snowstorm as weather, not climate. Instead of weather, climate models look at big causes over longer period of times like deep ocean circulation, greenhouse gas concentrations, and the Hadley Circulation of air from the moist tropics to the deserts of the mid- latitudes. Smith has studied the climate models and sees his “New North” becoming a more attractive place to live as it gets less frigid and wetter while mid-latitude lands get hotter and drier. Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, and their greenhouse effect, is constant pressure on weather in mid-latitudes and increases the odds of unprecedented weather events in places that have long enjoyed “stationarity” – the experience that weather fluctuates within a reasonably fixed range of uncertainty.

People clump in areas that have water availability, steady sea levels, abundant natural resources, and productive sunshine. Alaska will always get less sunshine than Texas, but it will get enough to support large scale farming if global warming extends Alaska’s growing season and increases rainfall as climate models predict. And even Texans may go north if there’s not enough water and too much heat in their home state.  Many times in the past people have left homes where a good life, or even survival, had become difficult and went to lands far away that offered hope. My own ancestors came to America from Europe out of desperation. If Smith is right, a human tide fleeing climate change may dwarf today’s illegal immigration problem.


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