The nation turned to a frozen core as the entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest last month, flowing all the way to 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. 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 out in wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm.
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. If we had been spending a lot of time parsing the nation by the chromatic essence of counties, looking for purple America, the cobalt of the northern states faded to Egypt blue that the weather maps–“cerulean blue” is regarded the first synthetic pigment, but had multiplied in an array of 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, the waves of cerulean frostiness that spilled arctic air onto national weather maps from February 12-16, 2021 seemed a plea for collective resolution on the even of the nation re-entering the Paris Climate Accords.
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 registerd the entrance of windblown gelid temperatures to send shivers up the spines of readers even in Miami.
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–as many Texas residents went without their power–as the weather system intersected with the nation’s power grid, disconnecting power plants form the grid as rolling blackouts for many of 26 million Texans served by the autonomous ERCOT grid–to make one query the promise of Energy Reliability that is embedded in the ERCOT acronym–interrupted power supplies of 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses.
Abbott was readying himself to sue the Biden administration over environmental regulations he scoffed at as pure “regulatory overreach,” freezing oil and gas leasing on federal land over the objections of the petroleum industry that Abbot promised he would take it as his primary duty to protect. But it’s no surprise that Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and states of the “Gulf south” are going to 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 that we conduct business as usual.
The vortex was wobbly indeed–or more wobbly than it was even in 2014, as the anomalous displacement of cold air first shocked Accuweather charts, placing it among the “most upsetting” data visualization of winter 2014, one of the first emotional glosses of a meteorological charts. 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–
–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. In short, this was not 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.
The very cerulean colors of arctic air that that streamed across weather maps were far removed from the clear skies that 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.
The change seem to be captured 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 power that fill the tracks on which three trains approach obscure all but spots of cerulean blue, seen through the screen of a lattice of wires over the tracks of the switchyard, capturing the new consciousness of air pollution of the late nineteenth century. At the same time 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.
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.
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.
Shifting perspective on the sky, satellite data on the far from cerulean skies suggested 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.
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.
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.
The ghostly static that might recall an old Talking Heads album cover 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.
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.