Extreme Climate and Re-Entering the Paris Accords

In an age it is disturbingly familiar for news maps to place us on tenterhooks by grabbing our attention, the existential urgency of the blanket of the continent with icy arctic air was no exception. But if the images of sudden entrance of frigid air shocked most states in the union and lower forty eight, the farther one collapsed the week of freezing cold, the more one could see a clarion call for the re-entrance into the Paris Accords,–as if the visualizers of meteorological disturbances at NOAA, newly liberated, were able to show the dangerous consequences of the tippy polar vortex and uncertain weather in an era of extreme climate change. Bright color ramps foregrounded falling temps in rich magenta or icy blue were almost off the charts, from the uppermost end of the spectrum in their duration–below–or in the low temperatures that were advanced–in maps that push the boundaries of expectations with urgency. As maps of the hours the nation was plunged into subzero trace a purple cold front advanced all the way into the deep south as it spread across the continent from up north, the continent shivered under the icy blues over the mid-February cold spell, as if challenging the viewer to place them in a broader frame of reference, pushing viewers to search for an explanation of what was not a mere irregularity.

And in the maps of the fall in national temperatures, as in the header to this post, the news that the nation witnessed a frozen core spread south to the southwest, almost reaching the border, seemed to shift our eyes from a border that was mapped and remapped as permeable to migration, to a map of unpreparedness for climate change, almost echoing the systemic denial of climate change that has been a virtual pillar of the Trump Presidency on the eve when Donald Trump had permanently relocated to Mar a Lago, one of the last areas of the nation that was not hit by the subzero temperature anomalies that spread across north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Iowa, plunging the many states we though of as “red” during the past election an icy deep blue interior in mid-February down to the Gulf Coast–

–that , as the week of arctic air’s arrival wore on, the newspaper of record glossed by a color ramp of low temperatures few residents southern states expected to be plunged into subzero surroundings. The color ramp they chose to chart how gelid air poured set off a cascade of events and disasters nicely demonstrated cascading effects of climate change on the nation, as the shock of low temperatures sucked the national attention away from the border, and begged one to come to terms with the challenge of climate emergencies in global terms.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

The entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest in unrelenting fashion. Plunging subzero temps hit the Texas coast that overloaded electric grids and shocked weather maps that seemed out of whack even for mid-February, as even the sunbelt of the southwest turned gelid cold as subzero temperatures arrived over a week, plunging the arctic neckline down into Texas, and almost across the southwestern border.

The shock of this map is its dissonance, of course, from the weather maps that we are used to seeing, the entire nation now, in mid-February, almost blanketed by subzero temperatures of deep blue cold, extending wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm. The national composite that forecast a deep freeze running right down the center of the United States and spreading to both coast at northern latitudes gave the nation a frozen core at the end of a hotly tempered election, that seemed a wake-up call to attend to long-term as well as immediate dangers of climate change, but made it difficult to disentangle the global issues from the existential question of millions in Texas and other states who were left without heating faced dangerously cold and unprecedented subzero temperatures, without clues about where to keep warm.


The impact of climate change has rarely been so directly placed on the front burner of national security–climate change deniers have preferred to naturalize polar melting by removing it from human agency so far to attribute shifting temperature to sunspot activity, or invoke longue durée theories of geological time enough to make noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould turn over in his grave. Doing so has stoked a devious confusion between local and global, and immediate and long-term, are bound to be increasingly with us in an era of extreme climate change. The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. We are loosing our beaches, and cities like Galveston, TX, Atlantic City NJ, Miami Beach FL, Key West, and Hilton Head SC are not alone in falling into the sea to lie mostly underwater in 100 years. As Ron Johnson assured us that “Greenland” derived its name from the green leafy bucolic forests of the continent–“There’s a reason Greenland was called‘ Greenland’–it was actually green at one time [even if] it’s a whole lot whiter now”–as if the truth about deep time was concealed by those overly alarmed ice shelves falling into the Atlantic, shifting ocean salinity with a sudden injection of freshwater that may alter the Gulf Stream, we were invited to contmplate the fierce urgency of now.

Perhaps the whole question of a span of time, as much as the theoretical proposition of global warming, was a concern. For we are as a country already looking forward with apprehension at maps of economic costs of flood damage to residences, amidst the anxiety charged year of COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple variants now on the loose, to prepare for escalating costs of climate change across the country, and not only on the coasts.

If Louisiana and California coastal cities will seem destined to stand the greatest risk of damage or residences, both due to the high valuation of California’s coastal properties, and the danger of hurricane damages across the Gulf Coast, the increased risk that residences alone face bodes serious economic losses across the United States. Yet as risk rises and brings with it escalated insurance rates, we stand to see the cascade of economic losses, of the sort we have not come to terms in imagining the fanciful image of a time when Greenland enjoyed lush forests in the past–a scenario that never happened, inventive etymologies aside–although it may soon host plant life as it looses its permafrost.

For the next thirty years bode an unleashed set of climate change catastrophes, altering the landscape and national economy in ways we have been preferring to ignore, putting not only Mar a Lago underwater, but multiplying actual risks of flooding escalate past 100% in coastal areas of cobalt blue. These states would not only leave many coastal populations vulnerable to flooding, but as risk rises five-fold, to rising risk-based rate changes, slated toy continue to increase due to climate change. While these coastal communities will be hit with real and assessed immediacy, the deep blue edges of the entire eastern seaboard stands to shake up a spatial imaginary we have long presumed to be clear edges to the nation. Many coastal lands stand to fall into the sea in ways on which we would do well to meditate with greater focus–placing state counties in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississipi, Alabama, Georgeia, and South and North Carolina seriously underwater.

These areas of substantial risk face risks far greater than current insurers, who are effectively acting as ostriches before climate change extremes as polar melting brings further surging seas, and suggests that actual risks far outpace the estimated in premiums on coastal and other property insurance–who have deflated the risks they have effectively denied, First Street found, with help from MapBox and , as estimates of economic losses in coastal areas stand to rise by almost $6,000 per property, a rise in risk of two thirds, projecting a net loss of $34 billion dollars in the contiguous United States, not including Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa or Puerto Rico–each of which will stand to be be hit hard. The divergence between computed and actual risk suggest a grim future for some of the most vulnerable and poorer areas of the nation, but a broad underestimation often of 500% in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode island, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and California–real costs that are being passed on to homeowners, which the government has allowed to be concealed diverge by an average of 4.2 times from expected risks of environmental damages due to climate.

1. Texas offered a four-day preview of climactic chaos wreaked by the Texas cold spell reminded us of the inevitable systemic cascade of consequences and human costs that arise as our infrastructure intersects with extreme temperatures. We saw the cascade telescoped into quite immediate terms, in a preview of emergency situations to come, as a deep freeze felled transmission towers and power lines in substations to disrupt energy networks across much of the south that were unprepared to provide customers with power over an interconnected network across space, at the same time as a surge in demand for home heating suddenly subtracted 34,000 megawatts from the network, as plummeting temperatures that had already fallen below freezing in October plunged deeper, plunging the power network into a chaos that preprogrammed priorities in allocating power on the grid had no contingency plan to fall back on, having pooh poohed the notion of a serious winter arriving in the Lone Star State–

Detail of United States Transmission Grid/Rolypolyman 

those things just don’t happen in Texas, as it were. And despite the long prided autonomy of a grid deriving from pride in the vast oil and gas reserves of the Republic of Texas, the dominoes began to fall as gas pipes froze and demand surged, and the energy grid that was imagined to be confined to one state lit up for power managers who were tasked to observing the flows of power across the state, as demand for residential heating grew so quickly to freeze the grid that distributed electricity to consumers.

How one Texas storm exposed an energy grid unprepared for climate change
February 17, 2021

The sudden entry of arctic air dipping south for four days was rendered in a chilling snapshot of the arrival cooler air, no longer containing arctic temperatures in true north. If we had been spending a lot of time parsing the nation by the chromatic essence of counties, the cobalt of the northern states in weather maps–“cerulean blue,” the chemical cobalt compounds in the late nineteenth century. And the ceruleans streaming across the nation seemed designed to shock as a wake-up call: if the haute couture assistant was chastised in Devil Wears Prada for missing the impact arrival of Oscar de la Renta’s 2002 cerulean collection, soon copied by Yves St. Laurent, cerulean frostiness spilled onto national weather maps as if in a plea for collective resolution of the global climate. Had we lost a sense of the global picture, parsing the nation by the chromatic essence of counties, looking for purple America. What is thought the first synthetic pigment in ancient Egypt and China, but became widely available in the nineteenth century seemed the right color to use to depict these streams of cold air.

Ceruleans that echoed such early synthetic compounds were the best graphic tools on hand to register the shock of the entrance of cold arctic air as if it were an invading army attacking our weather system from the north on weather maps of television screens, as an advancing cold front had disrupted electric systems in a surprise attack. Local Austin news had already registered, with considerable alarm, chevrons of icy air advancing into Texas of two cold fronts bringing freezing temperatures to Texas for the first time the previous October, surrounding the mega-city with what was apparent iciness, while urging folks to stay warm as a warm October shifted temperatures from the upper forties to low thirties, weeks before Election Day.

Weather whiplash: Two impressive cold fronts taking aim at Texas | KEYE

But the sudden arrival in February brought a winter weather alert across seven states–Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, as well as Oregon, as a polar vortex knocked temperatures far below that horizon, creating weather warnings in pink regions that stretched the lower forty eight from border to border that should sound an alarm across the United States, raising eyebrows of the national media, as weather storm advisories in areas of purple suggested abnormalties of import had hit the national waters, with light blue wind chill advisories spreading across the north. The colors were not that intuitive, but suggested something irregular.

Snow Ice Winter Storm Weather Warning Map

But the subzero temperatures that spread down to Texas, led emergency management officers to have to warn the public that the safest place to stay was at home–even if electricity had been shut down–as storm warnings spread across Texas, in subzero temperatures endured for seven days, power was cut to many homes, in a sort of plague of biblical proportions and unclear causation as the actual plague of COVID-19 was still out of control, with temperatures far below normal stressing a power system whose managers hadn’t predicted the eventuality.

Even if Texas was not at the forefront of the cold air, it was the least prepared, and least flexible in that region of cerulean blue tat was a weird sweet spot where temperatures fell far below normal, and power was taken away from 4.4. million who had to be convinced that staying at home was indeed the safest thing to do.

Winter Storm Weather Map showing Cold Temperatures
National Weather Service/NOAA

It didn’t help that the weather pattern was blamed on the “polar vortex,” which seemed to embody a Marvel super villain, more than the global risk of its newfound wobbliness as more worthy of note than the existential sense of emergency we prefer. The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. The suddenness of its entrance over four days is made manifest in a chilling snapshot of the arrival cooler air, no longer containing arctic temperatures in true north.

The ceruleans streaming across the nation seemed designed to shock as a wake-up call: waves of cerulean frostiness that spilled arctic air onto national weather maps from February 12-16, 2021 as an existential alarm as the nation re-entered the Paris Climate Accords, inflicting chaos not only on electrical systems and energy availability as regional power plants were paralyzed by unprecedented subzero frosts–as forced blackouts left four million without power, in an eery repeat of the Pacific Gas & Electric’s rolling blackouts that California experienced as the fire season last summer wrecked havoc with our energy system, cascading the consequences of the exaggerated chaos born by the plunging celadon isotherms of weather maps.

From the orange region of coastal Northern California, I surveyed the subzero temperatures entering much of the nation at a remove, but with apprehension, almost overwhelmed by concern at the sense of pathos in that deep cobalt midwest expanse. The commitment to monitor–and reduce–carbon emissions demanded a moment of judgement for the national reorientation. After eight years in which Presidential election have included debates about global warming that played out across what were “blue” and “red” state–and purple areas–there was a sense that the weather map, that most non-partisan of media, had somehow envoiced the earth to remind us that the wobbliness of the polar vortex climate change had wrought was not only rewriting the nation but disrupted the electric grids of much of the southwest and midwest. Across states once reliably “red,” the azure cold provoked by near-polar winds bearing colder temperatures, often more than ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit: at the same time as many residents without heating in Dallas and Austin burned furniture for warmth after their electricity had been cut, much of the nation seemed to be sent back in time to quasi-medieval heating systems, after ignoring climate change debates. Has the wobbly vortex not cast chill on these debates of alleged political divides? The result is more of a “frozen-core” version of the United States that seem designed to registered the entrance of windblown gelid temperatures to send shivers up the spines of readers even in Miami.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

The focus of all those maps on blue and red counties were disrupted by the wonderfully airy visualization of wind-driven cold temperature, as the temperatures above freezing temperatures seemed limited to the southwestern states, southern Atlantic states and the state of Florida, the largest continuous stretch of super-freezing temperatures. Based on a  Global Forecast System, of national ground-level temperatures, cerulean fit the atmospheric movement of an arctic weather system dipping into the lower forty-eight to chill the United States in a fitting close to the Trump era, if a painful one: record-low temperatures in Texas and much of the United States, the arctic airs that extended south of the border created meteorological dissonances as southern Texas was at points quite colder than the Aleutian islands, and the outage of electricity over the entire Texas grid–raising questions as to why they ever separated a grid separate from the country, as their two-tongued Governor blamed wind power for endemic suffering, concealing the dismissal of a climate emergency.

Mapped another way, not in terms of lowest temperatures, or even of cold fronts, the symbolism that we have come to naturalize as a result of the diet of meteorology that we are fed by the Weather Channel, making weather maps the best known maps of the nation, next to electoral maps, we might do well to map the historic cold front that spread across the Great Plains not only in terms of lows, or subzero climes, but a cerulean blue that illustrated the extent of sustain weather anomalies that sent snows to the shores of the usually subtropical climate of Galveston, TX, in the Gulf Coast, a site of wildlife refuges, beaches, and known for its vulnerably to storm surges, hurricanes, erosion and coastal flooding, rather than cold air. The arrival of cold air upended expectations of maps of climactic bands, a category confusion that was the casualty of a moment of extreme climate change. If risk assessment of the Gulf Coast was usually understood in terms of oil spills or hurricanes, unpreparedness for arctic air of subzero temperatures broke over 2,400 records of cold temperatures in the state, leaving 5,000 homes–4.3 million of them in Texas–without power, due to a great Arctic blast.

As NOAA summed up the snowfall, as if newly empowered to address the nation with a full range of graphic data vis resources and an enriched color palette for its most effective maps, more cerulean blues abounded across Texas, marking areas of up to six inches collective snowfall, even if most of the northwest felt it in several feet, and the midwest and northeast felt the impact up to a foot, the Lone Star state was the least prepared for the demand for heating from residences that were wired with electric heating, and had fewer options for borrowing energy–so committed were they to a model of energy independence and electrical deregulation, by handing the electrical grid over to a patchwork of private companies and energy retailers, boosted by confidence in a promise of cheap power that the energy industry had long promoted, that created the Energy Reliability Council of Texas to manage the local market.

2. Texas was unprepared as a state. As many Texas residents went without their power–as the weather system pushed southwards by the vortex intersected with part of the nation’s autonomous power grid with disastrous results–they were urged to remain at home, even if the fire had been cut, as we gained a sense of what a real climate emergency might look like, and the sorts of contingencies extreme weather changes could create.

If we are trying to regulate the interstate of energy in a responsible and, increasingly, a more responsive grid, the flow of cold arctic air south disrupted electricity for the residents across much of Texas quite spectacularly, placing in relief problems of an autonomous grid and lack of foresight its management during climate extremes.

Indeed, the opacity of power flows in an energy market dominated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ENCOT) has brokered a map of providing what are best understood as one-way maps of energy flow that the consumers cannot adequately grasp. For the map is removed from pressures of climate change; in the ERCOT control room, the map of energy flow across Texas reveals market flows consumers of electricity are unlikely to grasp either by it vulnerability or the levels of economic risk it commits them–by removing them from a sense of the heightened risks to energy flow that houses tethered to electrical heating are particularly vulnerable. The prospect of systemic vulnerability in an era of climate emergency rest in large part on the absurd over-confidence in the very territorial claims to the fossils fuels buried in the ground of which Texans have been historically proud.

Electric Reliability Council of Texas Control Room Map, Updating State-Wide Electric Use Every Five Minutes/
Ralph Barrera, American-Statesman

Texas lies proudly on an autonomous grid–it’s energy independence is something like the last stand at The Alamo, boasting self-sufficiency due to the vaunted abundance of coal-fired plants, oil rigs and refineries, and boosted by nuclear power. But vaunted energy independence of extracting energy from the ground offers little groundplan for the future of energy use in an era of extreme climate; indeed, privileging the autonomy of the grid at a remove from climactic variability–or from the pressures of climate change–opens the prospect of systemic vulnerability. ERCOT is not covering the entire states–the border city of El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas-dropping temperatures provoked the disconnection of power plants form the grid and blackouts for many of 26 million Texans served by the ERCOT grid–leaving many wondering if the promise of Energy Reliability embedded in the ERCOT acronym was reliable. The tethering of many newly built Texas residences to the grid meant that plunging temperatures interrupted power supplies for 4.5 million.

The false ecosystem of energy abundance will only become increasingly slippery as a dynamic in an era of climate change. The free market ethos of the Lone Star state has led to a boom in construction in recent decades of what seemed boom yers, as optimistic unregulated Texans worked to build more homes than any other state in the union, most all built to use electric heating, linking the crisis of the power network to one of housing construction, and extra-urban expansion of population density, that might make a map of the sheer “proportion without power”–a metric of considerable significance, to be sure–not fully able to capture the coincidence of human poor planning with the freezing of gas pipelines, reductions in the generation of nuclear power, and freezing of wind turbines that brought an across the board reductions of power for homes increasingly powered by a maxed out energy grid–

–in a distribution that demands for how it diversely affected businesses and residences.

The tethering of residences in many of the fastest-growing cities in Texas–Austin; Austin; Dallas–created an often under-noticed wrinkle to the lack of adequate preparation for the anthropogenic crisis. For such sinking temperatures provoked greater disruption for residents due to the lack of foresight Texas residences would be seriously affected by winter temperatures–or demand winterization that electric heating systems could not meet.

ERCOT was long designed as separate from interstate commerce in energy, and the affirmation of its energy independence created a new ecosystem for energy consumption that exposed Texans to far greater risk than the rest of the nation from fluctuating temperatures. The apparent bounty of cheap electricity linked more new homes to the grid distorted the accelerated dependence of new buildings that expanded extra-urban growth to than one might have expected. The https:jurisdictional autonomy that ERCOT won from the Federal Power Commission oversight from 2007 led to a boom in optimism which led Texans to build over a million and a half more homes since 2010–a massive construction of new homes whose heat pumps were built with expectations for cheap electricity and warm winters, exposing home-buyers to risks only apparent in cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas–in over 13 million homes tied to. network of far increased risk than they realized the consequences of not being able to assess their readiness to expose themselves to risks of dynamic pricing, as power loss of 28GW of forced electric outages in a dynamically priced power system revealed how closely new homes built in Texas in previous decades used electric heating over-confidently tied to the fortunes of the electric power grid–and how hubristic confidence in the grid as a sufficient source of power left the state unprepared for the cascading consequences of plunging temperatures all but predicted as a consequence of models of global climate change.

Such built-in dependence of an overwhelming expansion of new home construction tied to what seemed cheap electric heating, encouraged by the secession of the Texas power grid, run by ERCOT, beyond jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s regulation of interstate electric transmission. Texas had originally claimed energy independence by tying the fortunes of electricity to the big dams built on the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, that seemed plentiful power before President Roosevelt even signed the Federal Power Act that supervised interstate electricity sales, later boosted by the apparent bounty of fossil fuels in he Lone Star State.

NERC Interconnections Map

Did the dominance of electric heating systems that were tied to a single, geographically fixed region set up customers for the risk of a weather disruption that we saw in February? The confidence in the fossil fuels in the region that would be able to fulfill unrealistic unending electric needs for all residents surely did–and the lack of preparation for fluctuating energy needs, even in a state that uses abundant electricity to run near continuous air-conditioning for much of the spring and summer months, way into fall–raising fears that the spiking peaks of summer electricity use in an era where Texas will be hit by global warming will place new stresses on the grid.

Expansion of Homes Built with Electrical Heating in Southwestern States

New Energy Institute/UC Berkeley: New Home Construction Dependent on Electric Heating

The risks of such heightened demand for electricity as a human reaction to anthropogenic climate change creates new problems of monitoring, planning, and providing energy use during increasingly extreme climates. In a moment of climate denial, no doubt in part a prioritization in a political climate hostile to acknowledge climate change and warning–ERCOT has opted to not even use heating trends to make predictions about energy use, in ways that seem to bode an increasingly existential relation to online maps to monitor outages in any heat waves that may occur in months ahead, if no adequate incorporation of climate change is built into predictive models.

Texas' power outages: Why does the state have its own grid?
ERCOT Control Room/Mapping Flow of Energy Power to 26 Million Customers

What we might write off as a dangerous consequence of extreme climate rather than poor planning, as customers would be shocked to realize their futures had been tied to a system bearing high risk as the power went out in a mid-winter storm the likes of which their new homes were hardly prepared, and leaving many Texans suddenly facing exorbitant energy prices as the market for energy sources suddenly contracted, driving up costs astronomically as electric bills from Griddy jumped to unprecedented heights most weren’t aware they might ever be charged–and the tethering of new residences to a single energy source. And as ERCOT tried to manage home heating, ecosystems were devastated, as naturalists rushed to save sea turtles in the thousands, but a minimum of 3.8 million fish–and perhaps nearly 4 million–were killed by the freezing temperatures, in a massive die-off, as temperatures dropped by some forth degrees in Galveston Bay, although we focussed more on the failure of providing electrical heating to customers.

While ERCOT stems from a liberty of access to energy–a sort of freedom to extract energy from the ground that was promoted by then-Governor George W. Bush, he of the oil business family who had cultivated and spent petrodollars to enter government, and promote the American sport of baseball, before politics, as a ticket to voters’ hearts–the liberty to expend energy that drove to the foundation of ERCOT was a manipulation that “freed” the state from government monitoring, or, to give in a negative spin, surveillance and control. But the importance of using local emergencies of what was presented as an abnormal descent in temperatures, without precedent and hence unplanned by the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, an acronym that oddly gives full status to a preposition to make it sound euphonious, might be better understood as a way to leap to the mismanagement of the global. Despite Governor Abbott’s feigning of indignation and moral outrage. a “moral economy of energy” was readying the state to sue the Biden administration over environmental regulations he scoffed at as “regulatory overreach.” Abbot imagined that freezing oil and gas leasing on federal land over the objections of the petroleum industry became a primary duty to protect, rather than the public good. WIth disarming dishonest, Abbot diiligently blamed the freezing of wind turbines for the failure in electric providers–in the odor of Obama’s stimulus program–although the gas pipelines that freeze in subzero temperatures are even more sensitive to what promise to be increasingly fluctuating temperatures of climate change.

The need to pivot from the local disaster to a larger scale map might begin from a larger map of the nation or the west. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and states of the “Gulf south” will be hit hard by climate change catastrophes, many of the very states where the poorest Americans dwell: the dire scenarios of climate change situation that is projected by RCPM 8.5 across the “Gulf South” suggest sustained economic damage across the Gulf states, from Texas to Florida, and portends complex questions of environmental justice in years to come, not limited by any means to the polar vortex or the climate imbalances that it portends–assuming we conduct business as usual. But the maps that have been made multiple times of such scenarios were being denied by Abbott, immersed in the rhetoric of “freedoms” rather than prudence–“freedoms” that might have roots traced to the freedom to expand plantations and slavery into Texas, and the go-it-alone ideology of the Lone Star State, but were enshrined by corporate greed to keep the federal government outside of the Texas energy market, and free from regulations.

Yet there is no doubt that the very scenarios of global warming that have left that darn polar vortex so wobbly–more wobbly than in 2014, when the first anomalous displacement of cold air first shocked Accuweather charts, providing what was the “most upsetting” data visualization of 2014, an early shocked gloss of a meteorological chart of the sort we can only be expected to see more.

The figurative migration of arctic air currents to sub-arctic latitudes was something that was hard to narrativize, and the tendency to indicate human failure overlooks the extent of a collective failure to control the impact anthropogenic processes as a collective failure to control the human contribution to falling temperatures. As we watched the wobbly vortex in past years, the drop of arctic air was hard to map in terms of human agency, as we blamed government failure or a rapacious energy industry that sent rates skyrocketing for many Texans. Historical climate change familiar from Impact Lab sketches a different picture from 1981-2010, of course, with heating up temps across the southlands that one associates with global warming–and a warming up of the northern climes–

Impact Lab, Historical Climate Change 1981-2010

–that, to use the current color ramp, suggests a parched mid-century across much of the southwestern states, with temperature shifting just three degrees above the historical levels, but absolute levels in Texas and Arizona consistently in the eighties in the coming years, rising by mid-century to high eighties.

This wasn’t supposed to be what we were expecting–but the polar jet stream that once held arctic air in the poles has wrecked havoc as its meander grows, allowing sudden southern migration of cold air no longer penned in the poles; arctic has warming created a far less clearcut atmospheric river of the jet stream leads the polar vortex to wobble, sending snow flurries into the very regions forecast to reach average temperatures in the high eighties.

But the longue durée that we might do better to pay attention was less rooted in freedoms, than in the cascading changes of climate change, which suggested a rather disturbing shift toward warming temperatures across most of Texas, bringing with them a rise in electric energy for air conditioning that the current energy market was not at al poised to meet or confront only twenty years from now, according to current projections based on even moderate scenarios of climate change.

The very cerulean colors on those weather maps alarmingly showed an incursion of “arctic air” streamed across the nation imagined that such weather had little do with local energy management, increased carbon emissions, or the absence of envirtonmental regulations that had allowed the projections for climate change to grow so dire.

3. The chemical paints that caused a boom in the use of striking shades of cerulean was once marketed to painters to provide: if cerulean skies are barely seen in the smoke-filled cavern of the hulking train station Claude Monet explored, examining the concealment or disappearance of the blue skies he would have seen in the country retreat at Argenteuil in a series of rather haunting portraits devoted to the massive Gare Saint-Lazare, then the busiest of Parisian train stations, especially of its interior overwhelmed by the steam from coal-burning trains. The colors filtered out of the sound of engine whistles, panting of pistons, and soot that hung in the air but focussed on the new altar of industry as effect and by-product of Haussmanization by which streets welcomed increased traffic, but emphasized the radial network of trains that converged in the central stations of the capitol, connecting the country and the city with unprecedented rapidity that shifted ideas of space with the introduction of roads in the 1860s that transformed the clear break between the city and its faubourgs into a spatial network organized by the rail way tracks prominently included in an 1884 pocket guide to the city below, profoundly altering the relation of the city to its environment and to paved space.

Atlas du Canton de Paris, 1773: Fauxbourgs et ses grands chemins pavez et autres des hauteurs, bois, vignes, terres

Environs de Paris, 1:100,000 (1883) Hachette Pocket Guide/Rumsey Collections

The monumentality of the change of the relation of Paris to its surroundings seems to be captured and condensed in Monet’s sequence of paintings not only in the sooty interior, but how the vivid cerulean blues of the open skies were almost obscured by the billowing pillars smokes that filled the station: clouds of steam vapor fill the cavern which three trains enter to obscure all but spots of cerulean blue, seen through the screen of a lattice of wires over the tracks of the switchyard, as if capturing consciousness of new levels of air pollution that expanded so rapidly in Paris from the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time as a radial network of railroads brought increased traffic into the city, creating a daily spectacle of the urban spectacle of industrial emissions that proved a new motif of modern life from different perspectives, trying to capture the cerulean blues seen through the industrial interior that were almost obscured by the vapors that filled the station as rail service multiplied. The increased constriction of cerulean skies was something like a tipping point, we sense, of the industrialization not only of Paris, but of all France, triggered perhaps by the dehumanization of the “Hausmannization” of city streets that realized a program of street-broadening and repaving to permit cars to navigate with ease in the 1860s, that leaves its traces on the expanded metropole whose expanse contrasts sharply to the 1716 map David Rumsey Historical Map Collections htdigitized and reprojected over a current built urban expanse in its geogarage.

Haussmanization left the city dominated by street traffic, but where coal-burning trains brought increasing numbers across the nation into the busiest train station of the city, its new transit hub, whose denizens were not only grey due to lack of light, but the sooty air that permeated the new space and structure of modern life, introducing a griminess more common for coal workers who moved under the earth in search of veins of copper or bronze than the midst of inhabited space, flanked by multi-story residences that abut the train station and one can see in the background of Monet’s easel painting, in almost a visual pun on the notion of plein air painting, as he reflected on the interior he had literally left the countryside to leave near and observe.

The change seem to be captured in Monet’s sequence of paintings not only in the sooty interior in a spectacle of industrial emissions that proved a new motif of modern life from different perspectives.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare Station (1877)/Musée d’Orsay

As Monet set up his easel in St.-Lazare, in 1877, the arrival of trains was accelerated form the Parisian periphery and the nation, spewing forth a level of soot and smoke as a moving industry, that the stations could not in themselves contain, creating a spectacle of the diffusion of the emissions of modern life from their coal-fired engines as they pulled into steel and glass halls. Was the vitrine-ceilinged station was something of a site of experiment to observe how bilious clouds of train engines fill the room to obscure the sky as a sort of spectacle in itself, outside normal, where mechanical actors filled the space and transformed station masters to grey figurines?

CHnaging Rail Network in France, in 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1890

4. On the eve of re-entry into the Paris Accords, the entry of arctic air across our northern border wasn’t unprecedented, but a wake-up call. Search to the map’s colors to find some purchase on the plummeting temperatures across the midwest, ceruleans brought me back to Monet, finding traces of the increased carbon pollutants that filled the atmosphere registered in a map of the sulfurs that spewed up from power plants, the modern ancestors of the sulfur emissions that are in far better need of being mapped as we enter the Paris Accords, with the sort of about-face that Monet made in leaving idyllic garden at Argenteuil to face the carbon spewing out of the Parisian train station at Gare Saint-Lazare in twelve canvases that tried to capture modern life that ponder the dissolution of clouds, steam, smoke, and even asking the station master to leave train engines idling in the switchyard so he could to capture the effects of how steam smoke obscured the cerulean skies as the train station air filled with the bitter air of burnt coal. The 1716 urban Plan de la Ville et Fauxbourgs was relegated to the smoke-filled dustbin of history, bythe inter-related space of networks of communication, fossil fuel combustion, paved space, and superceded it, or, that the warped Georage overlay old urban plan lies above.

Shifting perspective to the sky, using satellite data on the far from cerulean skies, maps suggest the ghostly configuration of sulfur dioxide emissions emerging from what were increasingly less regulated North American power plants, refineries, cities, shipping industries, smelters and production of gypsum and fertilizer, as well as volcanos, to reveal the huge footprint of emissions released this past winter, cartographer Logan Williams showed in a snapshot that begs us to reconsider our relation to God’s green land. The continent is viewed by the anthropogenic release of airborne sulfurs registered by satellite, among the principle of climate change, where the once prominent contribution of the Cascades have been displaced by new hot spots of burning from power plants: these spots are not isolated, if there are clear concentrations of SO2 around them, but the products of a nation enmeshed in practices of carbon burning and fuel combustion, and dependent on the creation of electricity from power plants and refineries.

Logan Williams/@Obtusatom

The blurry activity of a speckling of the national map in the visualization in part results from the pointillistic geo-referenced data of remotely sensed data from the NASA satellite Sentinel-5P: but there the data here invests the map with a ghostly tenor, as its pixellated blur recalling nothing so much as an after-image burned on our optic nerves, although it is labelled to give some legibility. It is an image we have burnt onto our world: volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa are studied for their historical imprint, and volcanic eruptions that have increasingly oxidized the atmosphere have historically marked major shifts in global temperature now manifested in climate change, and the industrial uses of carbon fuels that have released as much sulfur into the atmosphere as a major volcano every 1.7 years since 1950 have created a world that we are changing more rapidly than we can grasp. Emissions from power plants and refineries dropped since 1980, when they reached a high point, as we first reckoned with the effects of acid rains that led to Rachel Carson’s work on aquatic ecosystems, appreciating the ecological risks difficult to reverse it creates; if even trace amounts of sulfur dioxide can effect the biological ecosystems and rise temperature, levels of atmospheric emissions astound.

Tons of SO2 Released into National Atmosphere/EPA

The cascading effects of all that atmospheric loading of gaseous sulfur dioxide released by combusting fossil fuel in industrialized areas wreak havoc on ecosystems, even if most often evident in inhibiting visibility by near-permanent haze. But the particulate matter combines with other pollutants create new level of obscuring smog, they not only enter human lungs to lower mortality, but sulfur acid aerosols increase pH levels to which aquatic creatures are sensitive, defoliating trees and inhibiting plant growth as increased acid rain move not through aquatic systems before leaching into the soil in ways difficult to map: the cascading aftereffect include increased in dying and dead trees across the landscape of potentially far greater combustibility. The United States, in this map, lacks crips outlines, but its global sulfur footprint glows as a deep blue blur of ultramarine that might be lapis, presenting the radiating afterglow created by widespread carbon combustion across the land. There is little differentiation we can recognize–without the tags of the Cascades, Chicagoland, and the San Joaquin valley we would have trouble orienting ourselves, but the BC and Ontario smelters, petroleum refineries, and power plants are the primary sites of orientation to red hotspots and challenge us to orient ourselves to the whole.

Logan Williams/@orbusatom

5. The alarming nature of that ghostly static might recall an old Talking Heads album cover of body temperatures. It is the anthropogenic residue of the nation, and in many ways the complimentary data vis of the intensification of climate change. The units of sulfur emissions are so staggering the best proxy for their production is perhaps not Dobson units but the active emissions of volcanic eruptions: anthropogenic sulfur emissions have created such a catastrophe in temperature rise, sulfur emissions equal to a rate of a large volcanic eruption every 1.7 years by 1962, and their carbon production exceeded that since by two or three factors, forcing acceleration of global climate change; anthropogenic sulfur emissions decreased after 1980, but rose so dramatically from 1950 through 1980 to provoke the first efforts in national policy to curtail and limit the increasingly devastating effects of acid rain. Concentrated in industrial areas, our sulfur emissions seem to be exploding by 2020 across North America, increasing industrial emission of sulfur even if these emissions were not accorded any clear contributory role in climate change models of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And if we focus, as the EPA, on production of SO2 at power plants alone, in a less jarring color palette, the less jarring “data” viewer almost conceals the tonnage of atmospheric pollutants released.


The ease of registering SO2 from satellite scans provides a clear basis for charting the extent of anthropogenic emissions in once remote Indonesia: anthropogenic emission of such climate-forcing gasses now by and large drown out volcanic activities that constitute a major source of sulfurs’ atmospheric release, easily registered remotely, that overwhelm the Indonesia peninsula to put Krakatoa in its place among anthropogenic SO2 emissions overwhelmed the passive release of sulfuric gaseous emissions from local volcanoes, indicated by triangles in low bands of Dobson units, presenting a somewhat complimentary picture of how man-made off-gassing outweighs the passive emissions of volcanic ranges that once created the largest atmospheric off-gassing, so that the emissions of a local power plant may indeed overshadow the passive off-gassing of sulfurs, 2005-7, from Krakatoa, after all.

Anthropogenic Emissions of SO2 in Indonesia, Sulawesi, and Singapore, from A decade of Global Volcanic SO2 Emissions Measured from Space, 2005-7 
Interactive Data Language (IDL) version 8.5.1

The extent to which the passive volcanic release of sulfur gasses across Indonesia drowns out the site of volcanic off-gassing, including Krakatoa, in this remotely sensed image from NASA’s Aura satellite’s Ozone Monitoring Instruments (OMI) that the effects of gaseous emissions pale in the force of overwhelming anthropogenic releases of climate-forcing gasses. But, to end this post on an up-beat note, although all these many data-points are remotely sensed, they have been embodied in both graphics of North America with a compelling coherence that allows them to be consumed: if the planetary climate seems to be punching back across the red-blue divide due to the shift of the polar vortex, beyond the nation, global warming is far from mysteriously sourced; the increased combustion of fuels that is pumping sulfur dioxide into our atmosphere remind us of the need for regulation, and help us process, assemble and map the cascading effects of atmospheric pollution on the world.

There is luckily more than a bit of visual intrigue and pleasure to help us process a dire story of anthropogenic change: the fading of the territory of the United States to a vivid deep blue blur that recalls artificial luminescence or background radiation is a classic heat map of pressing concern, and the increasingly cataclysmic new frontiers in climate change we may be poised to confront, perhaps less vertiginously than Monet watched the steam of coal-fired engines fill the capacious station’s atmosphere to obscure the sky seen through its skylights, even as the smoke from their engines seems to blanket out the blue sky.

Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877)/The Art Institute of Chicago

6. Yet the house of experiment is not large enough in the parameters of our maps: for we have stuck obstinately to the conventions of national borders, and to the land, mapping the areas of human habitation by pattern and habit, although it is likely from the ocean and wind currents that shape our patterns of warming, heating, and cooling, despite the familiarity we have with manners of laying our isotherms atop the land, to predict or forecast the sense of weather that we move through. Yet as the patterns for heating and warming are determined by global air flows, and global patterns, the flattening of data streams compiled from remote observation sources are less than helpful in trying to map the changes that the increase of heat-trapping gasses are about to provoke.

For the disturbance that is provoked in global temperatures seem to cascade, and the shifting of weather patterns that may be due to the surprising blob of cold water that is the outlier to warming temperatures–and the stubborn persistance of those declining temperatures in the northern sea, which may be slowing the inking of cold water into the ocean in the gulf stream, and the shunting warm air from the carribean into Europe and Africa, altering ocean currents after the melting of Greenland’s ice shelfs rom the 1950s, perhaps wrecking havoc in the stability of temperature systems

Land and Sea Surface Temperatures and Global Surface Temperatures , 1901-2012
The Blob: NASA Global Mean Temperaturees, 2015; temperature anomoloies based on past hundred years (Jan 2016)

Such changes in the circulation of ocean water that has long sent warm water from the tropics to Europe, arises from the sea, rather than the land, but stands to alter land temperatures more radically than an isotherm of land temperatures alone can hope to capture, and suggests a huge disturbance that has shifted atmospheric currents long in place, which stands to accelerate as the blue blob of cooler water lying in the northern Atlantic grows as a paradoxical result of climate change, changing the salinity and the temperatures of water, and reducing its ability to accept atmospheric heat. The cold blob that has lower by nearly a degree centigrade as most of the world’s temperature has increased by over a full degree–and some risen by two–the shifting nature of the conveyor belt of oceanic currents that create a sense of atmospheric stability could trigger a cataclysmic shift in habitats and livability as the warm water of the Gulf Stream that shifts a stream of warm surface water north that returns cold water to the southern hemisphere raises fearsome questions of altering ecosystems if it slows global ocean cycle; a shift in currents could lead to cascading changes of global performance, from increasing intensity of hurricanes forming in warmer waters of the Caribbean, accelerated ocean-level rise along the Atlantic coast, a shift in wind currents along the ocean and ocean waters absorbing fewer CO2 emissions; the cold water lurking off the coast of Greenland that prevents warm waters from flowing northwards may send more Caribbean air entering Europe–and drying out Africa–in a “global weirding” of cascading consequences more than current maps can portray.

Image: NOAA
January-August 2015 Blended Land and Sea Surface Temperatures, NOAA

To be sure, the striking NOAA map of atmospheric sciences dates from early 2016, or just before the climate change research program of the government agency was slashed and would continue to be reduced in half by a President who called global warming a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese government to paralyze the American economy, rather than a global crisis–before pulling out of the Paris Accords, of course, in June, 2017, after broad cuts to the EPA’s monitoring of national data and the closing of a climate change website the EPA long maintained, after the EPA administrator prioritized economic interests over environmental protections, demanding  “protecting the environment by engaging with state, local, and tribal partners to create sensible regulations that enhance economic growth” after Trump dismantled all action of the previous President on climate change–economic growth he saw as rooted in protecting leases for coal mining on federal lands, regulation of coal-fired power plants, and expanding nuclear power plants, hydraulic fracking, and pipelines to provide more fossil fuels.

The map composite is an eery echoe of the past, and perhaps marks a sort of tipping point in itself that we are only revisiting now, with Trump out of political office. The strikingly pronounced reduction in funds for all polar weather satellites by the Trump administration in each of its annual budgets deprioritized weather system satellites crucial to the creation of compelling maps and forecasts–but that had led to concerns of the slowing of the Meridional Overturning Circulation”–AMOC–in land/sea satellite composites that blended surface temperatures by 2016. The maps placed a premium on questions of the feared slowdown of the circulation of ocean currents as a result of fewer salty waters sinking to the depths of the Arctic ocean, leading warm water to flow toward England and Scandinavian lands and creating huge marine ecosystems for Atlantic migration. As more of the Greenland ice sheet melts, sinking far less water of greater density to ocean depths, the fears of a disturbance of AMOC stands as a tipping point to shift global temperatures we look at in isolation, in month-by-month nightly weather reports, rather than a global context–let alone in the hundred-year syntheses of trends in surface temperatures.

7. But searching for maps that describe contingency, and multi-causal mechanics that threaten to throw a series of switches in climate change may be hard to look to maps to try to portray, but rarely examine in global context. Have we become overly focussed on the land alone? We rely on maps to narrate and make concrete the prospect of impending danger, and they remind us of the linkages and intertwined causalities of land, air, and water, that a focus on atmospheric conditions or conditions on the ground alone will not be able to capture, when the cascading dynamics of once stable land-ocean dynamics are destined to erode. We face questions only of when such boundaries will erode, but struggle to map the interdependent nature of air temperatures and deep water temperatures and currents. As the masses amount of ice shelfs currently melting off Greenland sent more and more freshwater into the Atlantic, sinking less saltwater into the ocean, and reducing northward flown of the Gulf Stream, as a warming waters in the Caribbean create conditions for a coral reef die-off, and a regional cooling of North America, as more methane cases are released by the melting northern tundra as the thawing of frozen grounds that a result of global warming release more greenhouse gasses. To be sure, we are in need of more experiments to map mechanics of climate change; but the mapping of “tipping points” that start with changing ocean temperatures and salinity span land and sea-level rise. The dangers of shifting ocean currents pose problems of creating the very feedback loops that oceanographers are raising increased concern.

Global Forest Watch–Loss of Trees due to Fire, January-March 2021

6. The layers of our maps are, locked to land as they are, difficult to link to the atmosphere, but as maps of emissions, the addition of remotely observed data is an addition of the loss of old growth forests and forested land due to fires, that has deprived us of one of the biggest sponges of carbon emissions on which the planet relies. The increased deregulation that has deprived the world of this carbon sponge on which it has long relied to decrease greenhouse gasses of anthropogenic origin is limiting the ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere, as forests have been burned and old growth trees that have long sequestered carbon are lost. The destruction of those old growth forests has been steadily accelerating with deregulation, of course, with a rapaciousness that seems to akin to the bolstering of freedoms of plunder, enrichment, and mismanagement.

The problem such maps direct ot he need for the mitigation of forest fires are clear. Deforestation has been credibly argued to decrease emissions by up to 5.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, but the reduction of forests by the combination of fires and clear-cutting, according to Global Forest Watch, have meant the loss of tropical forests that undermine attempts to restrain warming temperatures–as forest ires have consumed an ever-increasing amount of forests across the globe, and not only at the equator, that might be able to provide as much as 30% of the solution to keeping global temperatures low, but were removing CO2 removal in the past twenty years: improperly monitored agriculture, forestry, and land use has contributed almost a quarter of totoal anthropogenic emissions of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, with high confidence, and a driver of total land-atmosphere CO2 flux. Wood harvesting alone accounts for some 13% of anthropogenic co2 emissions, foreclosing possibilities of removing anthropgenic carbon from the atmosphere: the elevated temperatures stand to leave growing risks of severe fires in the rainforest biomes with high confidence, as well as in boreal forests.

As it stands, the rapid pace of fires–including the fires or cutting of old growth forests that were long reserves of carbon–demands to be seen as a consequence not only of deregulation of forest clear cutting on each continent but as coupled with poor fire prevention a poor global preparation for climate change, hobbling us in the fight to keep global temperatures low, by mitigating climate change: if not as concentrated as industrial emissions, when each tree is burned from the global forest,the carbon that it stored–and the timespan across which it stored it–returns to the atmosphere, putting us in an ever more precarious position in relation to runaway climate warming.

Global Forest Watch, Loss of Trees by Fire, May 15-August 15, 2019

While the sustained loss of forests able to sequester released carbon is a major share of the maintenance of a healty climate as we court climactic disaster at extreme temperatures, and the world over-heats, with untold consequecnes of catastrophe, the train is surely coming into the station as we seek to adopt better regulation and mitigation programs, but also to manage forests more resonsibly in the coming millennium.

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Filed under anthropogenic change, Climate Change, data visualization, News Maps, weather maps

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