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Chaos: to battle or ride the waves?

The Computer and the Consciousness In the shoes of Sancho Panza


Weird weather and bifurcations

Filed under: Chaos, Meteorology — karmen @ in the early afternoon

A fire burns near my home, in part due to strange weather conditionsWeirdness. If you ask me, the concept is as old as humanity, perhaps even older. Could it be, that as the climate changed (triggered most likely by a collision from space) and the dinosaurs watched their usual food supplies dwindle, their reptilian brains might have registered some sense of weirdness? That is sort of an extreme example, perhaps. How about the early eukaryotes, just gaining a sense of up and down, noticing a strong change in oceanic currents? Maybe they, too, thought in some way, “oh, what the…?”

My point is that our world tends to be weird at times, especially concerning the weather. However, according to ABC News, the weather in the North America is getting even weirder:

Today will be the 22nd straight day of above-normal temperatures in parts of the Midwest. In the Northeast, New Yorkers will likely trade sweaters for short sleeves. The normal temperature in New York City for this time of year is 38 degrees, but today’s forecast is 54. Boston’s normal is 36 — today’s forecast is 56. And in Washington D.C., the normal temperature is 42 degrees. Today, try 62.

Sounds nice? Not for everyone:

[T]he pleasant weather isn’t being felt everywhere in the U.S. There are record rains in Seattle, bizarre winter wildfires in Colorado, and drought so bad in Arizona that water reservoirs are running dangerously low.

“The pattern we’re in right now is somewhat strange, leaving some areas quite wet, some areas quite dry,” said Bob Glancy of the U.S. Weather Service.

The Rocky Mountain News ran a similar article to the ABC report yesterday, but quoting Shakespeare:

“Hot ice and wondrous strange snow
How shall we find the concord of this discord?”

- William Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Even the Bard might be puzzled at describing the strange weather that Colorado has been having these past few weeks.

Speaking as a Colorado native, I can agree. Last Halloween was the first I can remember when the kids didn’t need snowsuits to trick-or-treat. Usually, this time of year, we are complaining about icy roads and snow flurries. Instead, people are running around in shorts and driving their scooters. Flowers have survived the few cold snaps we had in late 2005, but any left untended have died from the drought. The fires have been close to home, as well. One, pictured above, burned near highway 93, just a few miles west of my neighborhood.

Weird? Certainly. Unexpected, not exactly:

Bernie Rayno, meteorologist for Accuweather, explained the warm-weather phenomenon.

“The reason for the warmth across the United States is a westerly flow,” Rayno said. “In a westerly flow, the air comes from the Pacific and as it comes down from the eastern side of the Rockies, it warms and it dries. And that’s the air mass that we’ve been under.” (From ABC, again.)

That warm air is then propelled straight across the country by the current jet stream — what’s called a strong “Pacific jet.”

They tactfully avoid any suggestions as to what has caused changes in the jet stream, but a little googling (or common sense) can turn up the answer:

Global Warming.

A section of the Mandelbrot set, ChaoticUtopia-styleWell, duh, most people knew that. It is rare, however, that we acknowledge the complexity behind global warming. The problem resembles Mandelbrot’s fractals and attempts to measure the shoreline. You can measure a coastline on a map to get a sense of length, but walking along the shore with a yardstick will be more accurate. Even more accurate would be to measure each grain of sand.

When it comes to global warming, it is easier to blame one source, but it is never that simple. It is simple to point a finger at emissions from industry and vehicles, but blanketing the blame doesn’t solve the problem. When it comes down to it, each time we drive the car, or use some product made from plastic or other petroleum byproduct, we’re tossing another grain of sand into the mix.

I’m not really suggesting we can stop, either. I love my half plastic computer, my car and processed food–it’s difficult not to take advantage of technology. On the other hand, while we cannot return to some ascetic life without technology, we can adapt. As the same ABC article suggests, the weather is even giving the energy companies a hint:

This week, the Department of Energy revised its forecast for home-heating costs this winter. Homeowners will still be paying more than last year, but not as much as first thought.

“The good thing about these warm temperatures, it saved us an awful lot of money,” said Phil Flynn, energy trader for Alaron Trading Corp.

ADAPT! (My own take on the fish emblem wars. Look for stickers here someday.)We can’t give up fossil fuels, but we can prioritize their uses. We can focus on energy alternatives. For instance, we would be more willing to choose nuclear energy if we didn’t fear the waste. We can, instead of blindly fearing the technology, change our perspective. For instance, rather than focusing on disposing spent uranium, we can focus on the disposal of the products uranium decays into.

We can take advantage of the climate change, using renewable energy sources in places that have become too hot and sunny or too windy. My point is, we’re adaptable–or at least, we have to be, at this point. Our survival, at least as a technologically advancing society, requires it.

BifurcationUsing the beauty of mathematics as an analogy again, I believe we are reaching a point of bifurcation. We are encountering bizarre and complex coincidences, some warm and pleasant like the weather, or unsettling as in the threat of extinctions (see Carl Zimmer’s blog on frogs and fungus, or this article on polar bears.) At the same time, we are experiencing the synthesis of information, such as in the Human Genome Project, hinting at new technology. (Genetics, too, seems to have both pleasant aspects (curing disease) and unsettling aspects (the political debate surrounding cloning issues.)

It shows in economics, fads and trends, and even our personal lives. Words like “synchronicity” or “convergence” have become buzzwords. (A friend of mine calls it a “singularity.” He defined it beautifully, saying “it feels to me like an old fluorescent light turning on, how it flickers a little at first, before the steady glow.  Everything’s about to turn on.”) 

Personally, I don’t think it is a fluke. In many aspects, we are on the brink of the next big thing. Even blogging seems to be a part of it… information has become our hottest commodity, one that is shared freely and globally. Where is it going to lead? I think it looks promising, as long as we remain adaptable.

Weirdness? It’s a good thing.

(All images here are my personal designs, except the photo the of highway 93 fire, which was taken by Glenn Asakawa of the Denver Post… I’m not really the type to go chasing fires just for pictures.)


  1. Wonderful piece, Karmen. The weather here for the past couple of weeks has been very mild, with temperatures Friday near 60, as you indicated. Late Friday night it poured buckets of water, and then this morning I awoke to see an inch of snow on the ground. Weirdness indeed.

    But a good thing?

    Not being an expert on global warming, I do recall reading something about the acceleration of the problem that will occur with the melting of the ice at the poles. A quick Google produced some interesting tidbits of info that touches upon this in an article from New York Review of Books titled “The Coming Meltdown.” If I understand it correctly, the effects of global warming become the catalyst to even more warming. It doesn’t sound very good to me.

    And the “singularity” reference reminded me of an article I read a couple of years back on Ray Kurzweil’s site referencing an academic paper written by Vernor Vinge. Aparently Vinge was the person who coined the term of the “Singularity” as a time in our technological future —”I’ll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030″—in which societal, scientific and economic change occur so rapidly that is becomes impossible to conceive what will happen afterwards. That’s Weirdness to the googolplex power.

    As fascinating as it all sounds, weirdness scares the beejeebees out of me.

    Comment by jay — 1/14/2006 @ 6:15 pm

  2. Thanks for quoting me. I’m honored.

    I think there’s every reason in the world to be scared of the Singularity. It’s going to go incomprehensibly fast.

    Part of the bright side is that we’re likely once we’re on the other side to be able to really start to model the climate of this planet. So there’s hope we’ll be able to clean up after our little drunken party.

    Comment by mungojelly — 1/18/2006 @ 1:25 am

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