Tiny Silver Lining, Or Only Fool’s Gold?

By David L. Brown

Is there a silver lining in the global warming cloud? Well, maybe at least a bit of gleam among the gloom, although it could also be Fool’s Gold. According to Reuters today, oil futures dropped more than a dollar on the fact that the Northeastern U.S. was experiencing warmer than usual temperatures, thus reducing demand for heating oil. Here are details (read it all here as reported on FoxNews.com):

“The weather still dominates the demand picture,” said Steve Bellino, senior vice president for energy risk management at Fimat USA.

DTN Meteorlogix said temperatures in the U.S. Northeast had averaged 10-16 degrees Fahrenheit (5-8 Centigrade) above normal over the long Christmas holiday weekend. The weather was expected to average near to above normal over the next five days.

Now I will be the first to agree that a short-term regional warming spell cannot be construed as evidence of global warming, so please do not jump all over me on the assumption that I am trying to make that case. For all any of us can know, the New England winter of 2006-7 may turn nasty by next week and experience some of the coldest weather on record. Actually, that may even be likely because the effects of “global warming” actually take the form of climate change, with greater extremes in both directions. As the average temperature of the Earth rises, individual locations may experience hotter temperatures or the complete reverse. One place may get more rainfall than in the past, another once moist region may be turning to desert.

However, anyone who has been around as long as I have and can remember the Midwest winters of the 1940s and ’50s will surely agree that the winters there are often far more mild than in the past. In my central Missouri childhood winters were generally characterized by deep, drifted snow that stayed on the ground for weeks and even months. When I first began to drive one of the lessons my driver’s ed instructor gave me was how to steer into a skid on ice and to use the brakes judiciously. It was taught not by lecturing, but by actually going to the empty and snow-covered parking lot at the University of Missouri’s Tiger Stadium and skidding the car around in circles. There was a good reason for this training, because the streets and roadways would be covered with ice and snow for long periods and one had to learn the art of sliding around corners more by the use of the brakes than the steering wheel. Quite a thrill I assure you.

(My training came in quite useful one January day about 25 years ago on a stretch of I-40 in The Texas Panhandle when my wife was driving our Mercedes and hit a stretch of ice at about 70 mph. The car went out of control and started to swing to the left. I shouted “don’t hit the brakes!” (that would have been disastrous) and reached over to help her steer the car out of the skid. The vehicle swung fully 90 degrees and for several tense seconds it was going sideways down the Interstate before it started to come back. Then it swung the other way but not so far, and after about five or six oscillations we regained control and continued on our way as if nothing had happened — but a lot slower. We saw a lot of other vehicles in the ditch later that day, including a number of jack-knifed semi-trailer rigs.)

Now one of the reasons why the United States is the leading source of greenhouse gas is because we live in a generally cold climate, especially when compared with Western and Southern Europe, most of Japan, and southern Asia, not to mention the tropics. Keeping our dwellings warm goes a long way to explaining why fuel prices rise in the winter and why we burn so much of it. The North Central part of our continent in particular has more in common with Siberia than, for example, France or Spain.

Central Missouri where I grew up has not had the kind of winters I described above for some time now. When I lived there in the ’90s I recall one New Year’s week about eight years ago when the flowers were still blooming in my backyard, the grass was green, and we were sitting on the patio enjoying the warm weather with a cold drink. My associate Val Germann still lives near there and although he reported a couple of weeks ago on a severe winter storm that dropped about 15 inches of snow on Columbia, MO, within a few days that snow was gone and temperatures were peaking in the 50s. Quite a different place than the one in which I grew up.

Well, OK, more evidence: Here’s what Weather.com gives right now as the forecast high temperatures at Columbia in the next few days: Today, December 26, 41 degrees F.; tomorrow 49 degrees; Thursday 52 degrees; Friday 56 degrees. After that it begins to cool again, but the highs after ten days are still above freezing and expected to be 45 degrees F. on New Year’s Day.

So, if we can assume that some regions in the U.S. such as the Central Midwest and possibly New England are experiencing warmer winters than in the past, and that that trend will continue as the Earth grows warmer, it will consequently result in the burning of less heating oil in furnaces, not to mention less use of natural gas and coal where those fuels are used for heating. That’s the tiny little silver lining I was referring to.

Now, if only we could do something about the increased use of energy to run air conditioners when summers grow hotter … but that is a subject for another day when I will describe the benefits of efficient subterranean houses such as I began to sketch a half century ago when I was in high school and learning to steer a car sliding on ice. Such structures would be far less dependent upon both heating in winter and cooling in summer … definitely an energy-efficient design for the 21st century and beyond. I’ll try to write about that soon. Meanwhile, keep warm and here’s hoping there is some better news for Planet Earth in 2007.

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