THEY CALLED IT “Earth Science” and it was a brand new curriculum mandated by the state the year I entered 8th grade. It came along at the height of the “space race,” when the U.S. geared up to compete with the Soviet Union in the field of space exploration. Earth science was supposed to make us students smart, like those Communist kids. The really bright ones in my class got to study the Russian language. The rest of us took Spanish.
That Earth science class accounts for much of what I know about geology, climatology and astrophysics. The Reds had nothing to fear from me. But the course left me with a lingering curiosity about the physical history of the Earth, including the forces that created the landscape of the Hudson Valley.
This wasn’t always a lush, green and relatively tranquil place, aside from blizzards, heat waves and the occasional tornado. The recent floods from tropical storm Irene that washed away the homes, businesses, roads and bridges of our neighbors in Greene and Ulster counties and other parts of the region, serve as a reminder of that, though much of this county was spared the full force of the storm. Who knows why.
Much of my adult understanding of these particular forces comes from Dr. Robert Titus, a professor of geology at Hartwick College. I enlisted him as a columnist for another newspaper years ago and he now writes for the Hudson newspaper, the Register-Star. From him I know deluges like the ones produced by Irene shaped the most prominent feature of the view we see today: the Catskill Mountains. Dr. Titus says the geological record shows that the Catskills were once a floodplain built up as another, much higher range of mountains in what’s now Massachusetts eroded and was washed toward the ancient inland sea in an area we now call the Midwest.
It took some pretty nasty storms to move that mountain range, but this happened about a quarter-billion years ago, give or take, at a time when the world apparently was much warmer place. Scientists tell us that a warmer world means more rain.
The finishing touches on the Catskills as we see them today happened just yesterday in geological time — 10,000 to 20,000 years ago — as the last glaciers buried this region and then, once again in a warmer world, receded, releasing torrents of water that cut the beds of rivers and streams and molded the landscape with boulders and mud. There is evidence then, too, of violent changes triggered by climate and geology.
The consensus among climate scientists today is that we can’t say with assurance that any one storm or even a period of destructive weather comes from a warming of the Earth’s climate. All they can say for sure is that storms like Irene are consistent with predictions of what will happen as the atmosphere and seas grow warmer.
The scientists who study weather patterns also say that while there are natural cycles of warming and cooling, the records we find in the ground, the ice and the atmosphere show that the Earth is getting a lot warmer a lot faster than it did during those natural cycles.
Congressman Chris Gibson, a highly educated and intelligent man, suggested during his election campaign last year that some of this warming might result from sunspot activity. But the record shows that the part of the sunspot cycle we’re in right now should be cooling the Earth.
Just as odd, a liberal professor and political commentator recently suggested to a local audience that there would be “winners and losers” as the climate warms, and that the people in the Northeast would be among the winners. I wonder how he would explain the relative advantages of a warmer climate to the residents of communities like Windham or Prattsville, or the people of New Jersey and Vermont whose lives were ripped apart by the floods.
Most people in this county got a break as the force of Irene hit others much harder. Maybe the next storm will miss us too. Maybe it won’t. In the meantime, since there steps that reasonable people can take that might slow the factors leading to a warmer climate and the storms consistent with it, why, exactly is it that neither we nor our leaders are making any consistent effort to take them? How lucky do we think we are?