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Rudi Kiefer: Dramatic weather events are nothing new
Rudi Kiefer
“It came out of nothing,” the local newspaper reported a day after it happened. What had started as a normal summer day suddenly turned into disaster.

At 3 p.m., a thunderstorm pelted the streets with hail. In the city center, an underpass filled with floodwaters. A crust of ice bobbed on top of the water, immobilizing cars stuck there in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Motorists climbed on top of their cars, rescued in the nick of time by the fire department’s inflatable boat. Six people died in the storm that unleashed a bombardment of hail and flooded low-lying buildings.

The day was Aug. 15, 1972, and the place was Stuttgart, Germany. It illustrates that unprecedented storm events happened in the past, just like ones we see in the news nowadays.

North Georgians remember March 10, 1993, when a blizzard hit our region. After highs in the 70s, Atlanta got 4 inches of snow. Almost 3 feet was measured in Union County. Ten years earlier, on March 24, 1983, the Athens area set a record with 8.7 inches of snow. Taken in a historical perspective, extreme weather happening now doesn’t look all that unusual.

Recent tropical systems like Harvey and Irma may be part of a climatic change pattern, but they aren’t the first events of their kind. They set wind speed records. In 1980, though, Hurricane Allen brought 190 mph winds into Texas and Tamaulipas State, Mexico.

The climatic adjustments of the 21st century aren’t really global warming. They are the response to an increase in the globe’s uneven heating and cooling. Average weather is changing in a lot of places, as are sea levels. But the change we’ll notice the most is the greater variability in weather.

Events that we’ve seen before — late winter snow storms, super-powered hurricanes, “bomb cyclones” and such — are likely to occur with greater frequency. This is because large pockets of energy, like the subtropical oceans, are competing with fast-cooling landmasses, like Alaska and northwest Canada.

An overall warming of the atmosphere doesn’t result in warmer conditions everywhere. It results in more movement of air masses to make up the difference between day and night, summer and winter, hot and cold. For North Georgia, these air masses arrive in the form of cold fronts and warm fronts. We’re sure to see more of those long-standing visitors.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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