New Year, New Normal?

I’m referring to our weather.

There’s a basic difference between weather (the stuff that goes on from day to day) and climate (defined as averages taken over at least a 3-decade period). Admittedly, what we’ve been experiencing recently by way of floods might just be weather.

On the other hand, the fingerprints of climate change appear to be all over this year’s weather (if you’ll forgive the mixing of metaphors).

It gets wet in the wintertime. This is not news. Being an island sat in the path of prevailing maritime winds, the UK can achieve ‘wet’ all year round but generally we do get more in the winter than the summer. We had floods in 2012-13 that were pretty devastating. We had floods in 2013-14 that were even worse. Now we’ve had record flooding across a massive sweep of the country starting in 2015 and more still forecast for the next few days at least.

In case anyone missed it, there was a hurricane in the Atlantic in January 2016. They aren’t supposed to show up until June. There was also an iceberg spotted off Newfoundland, where it shouldn’t have been until April. Greenland suffered a mysterious melt-water event just after Storm Frank dumped a load of hot air over that area of the world, at the beginning of the month. Hurricane Alex dumped more hot air into the Arctic last week. Arctic sea-ice, which should be growing rapidly in the depths of the Arctic winter, is at very low levels and practically stalled for a bit in early January (look at the graph of sea-ice extent on the link and you can see the growth of ice flat-lined for several days).

I’m not just listing random events, by the way. All will become clear.

All of this brings me to Storm Jonas. Like Storm Frank, Jonas started life by walloping the US East Coast and is now moving offshore, through very much warmer than usual North Atlantic waters, heading for a meeting with a pool of colder than usual water in mid-Atlantic. When Frank encountered the cool pool, the effect was to supercharge the storm with increased winds and moisture, and Frank then blew right into Britain. Jonas is forecast to do exactly the same, and should (if the forecasts are correct) be landing on our heads from about Tuesday onwards, before swinging up the coast of Norway and delivering, yet again, a dollop of hot air from lower latitudes into the Arctic.

There’s two different points here.

The first one is, should the UK be expecting storms to come off the US continent, spin up again in mid-Atlantic and smack heavily into the UK as a regular thing from now on? We’re on the side of a hill, well above local water courses, but we now know which of our sheds goes below the water table level first and if it rains non-stop for eight days, as it did during/after Frank in this area, we’re going to need a sump-pump in that shed. I’m still in the process of fitting a raised floor to Jet’s cage, because he did not take kindly to 2 inches of water underfoot! The freezers are up on bricks as a temporary measure to keep them running safely. (Bailing out a shed, on and off, for two days is not an activity that I enjoy very much.) Should we be planning for average precipitation to go up from here on in?

Of course, the point about storms gaining force in mid-Atlantic before they hit us brings us to the cool pool. This is an area of the North Atlantic that’s been anomalously colder than average (one of the very few places in the world that still is!) for a couple of years now. It seems to be cooler because it’s fresher water than the normal run of Atlantic seawater, and it’s fresh, cold water because it’s melting off Greenland. Fresh water is less dense than salt water, so Greenland’s run-off is sitting on top of the warmer Atlantic salt water like a lid.

This brings us to the second point about these storms. Since the 1940s, when the Arctic temperatures started being recorded regularly, the temperature in the Arctic has risen to or above freezing 3 times, all in December. Storm Frank made it four times, just barely getting under the bar at the very end of 2015. Jonas might do it again this coming week, which would be a first for the records. (Hurricane Alex, incidentally, pumped air across Western Greenland that was 16-22 degrees C above average – but didn’t quite get the temperatures above freezing).

The more hot air goes into the Arctic, the faster the ice melts. The faster the ice melts, the more fresh, cold water goes into the North Atlantic cool pool. The bigger the cool pool, the bigger the storms, and the bigger the storms, the more hot air goes into the Arctic? (Note that question mark – it’s not proven yet, but I’m starting to wonder!)

As a side note, the bigger the cool pool the more it stalls the Gulf Stream going up into northern waters, so there’s a sort of backlog of hot water sat alongside the US east coast as a result, both raising sea levels and providing lots of energy and water vapour for coastal storms like Jonas.

This is beginning to look suspiciously like a positive feedback loop or, as my mother prefers to call it, a vicious circle.

If it is a positive feedback loop, then each time anything increases in that loop, everything else increases too, which means we can expect more ice melt to lead to more cool pool, leading to bigger storms, leading to more warm air going north, leading to more ice melt….. etc.

It’s always been said by climatologists that the Arctic will see most climate change, faster than the rest of the planet. Feedback loops (all, alas, positive ones) will kick in there before anywhere else. There’s another feedback loop that might tie in with the cool-pool/bigger storms/more ice melt loop, and that’s the simple fact that dark water reflects only 10% of the light (and heat) that falls on it, whereas white snow/ice reflects 90%. Replace Arctic ice and snow with water and the energy absorbed in the Arctic rises, which causes temperature rise, which causes more melting….. you get the picture.

Last week, NASA and NOAA joined the various other meteorological/climate science organisations in unveiling their analysis of 2015 global temperatures and, if you line up the 16 hottest years on record, 15 of them come since 2000 (and the other was 1998, which was freakishly hot due to a very big El Nino that year). Greenland ice melt has been accelerating and Antarctic melt looks like it will be, too.

Time to get that sump-pump fitted in the shed.

Intelligence and Information Sources

A bit of a change from routine here but relevant and important to anyone trying to plan for the future.

Where do you get your information from? Do you read the newspapers, watch TV, listen to friends in the pub? How good is their grip on reality? Are you hearing a load of opinionated BS, or are you hearing thoughtful, insightful comment, or are you getting anywhere within spitting distance of an actual fact?

Let’s be honest; it’s practically impossible to sift out fact from fiction in any mainstream news organisation these days, unless you know the difference before you start reading/listening to begin with. All the same, you can get a long way in the process by considering the source of your information. Is it believable? Is it coherent? And who said it?

I’m going to use a story from yesterday as my case in point. This one had some preppers I know metaphorically diving into bunkers, fearing imminent nuke exchanges as WWIII kicked off and NATO rushed to Turkey’s aid against Russian attacks.

Russian Jet Shot Down by Turkey

What happened? Who knows?

(Just as an aside, I still haven’t worked out how, assuming it was true, the Turks shooting down a Russian jet could be construed as Russia attacking NATO. Boot’s on the other foot, surely?)

For most of yesterday, various media organisations picked up this headline and regurgitated it in various ways, with varying degrees of confidence, bombast and caution, depending on their editorial policy and political leanings. I spent most of the day filtering through various sites where I’ve learned to go and find alternative information and what it boils down to is this.

Someone on Twitter reported seeing a flash in the night sky in northern Syria, near Aleppo, after seeing some fighters go by.

This was picked up by social media as “three eyewitnesses in Turkey saw Russian MiG-29 shot down in Turkish airspace by 3 Turkish F-16s which were hovering”.

Hang on a minute…. since when did F-16s hover? Being charitable, this could be a translation error and they might mean ‘circle’, I suppose. Or maybe they can’t tell the difference between a fighter jet and a chopper?

Hang on another minute…. how did eyewitnesses in Turkey see a plane shot down near Aleppo, nearly 30 miles from Syria’s border??

Hang on another minute again….. since when did Aleppo, 30 miles inside Syria, count as ‘Turkish airspace’???

And hang on just one more minute…. hands up anyone who can identify a Russian MiG-29 in the dark as it’s shot down 25-30 miles away!

I envy their eyesight.

Quick check of news reports from the past week or so and I can’t find any mention of the Russians fielding MiG-29s in Syria – they seem to be using Sukhoi 20s, 25s, 30s and 34s.

Could be a Syrian Mig-29, the Syrian airforce does use MiG-29s.

Anything on radio traffic? Apparently not – I regularly check out a forum called DEFCONWARNINGSYSTEM as they have quite a few members who monitor US military radio frequencies; even if the actual communications are coded, you can still note an uptick in activity and correlate that with something actually happening. Apparently the US military is business as usual, nobody’s excited about anything, comms traffic is normal everyday stuff.

What was the US President doing yesterday? Burning up the hotline to Moscow heading off WWIII? Nope, apparently (if you believe his own twitter feed) he was talking about the Trans Pacific Partnership being good for US jobs and workers.

Anything by way of comment from the Russians about losing an expensive warplane? Nope. Not even a ‘no comment’.

Anything from the Turks about starting an international shooting war with a country they’ve recently been doing a lot of expensive infrastructure deals with? Have they ticked off the Russians just before the Russians build them a new nuke power station and a whopping big oil/gas pipeline? Not even a ‘no comment’. They’ve got their hands full with terrorist bombings in Ankara, certainly, but you’d think they’d remember if they’d also shot down a Russian fighter.

Anything from Syria? Not that I can find, but then nobody’s reporting anything Syria says anyway. No cheering self-congratulatory back-slapping reported from any of the rebel groups or IS (not that I can actually tell the difference between any of them!) about downing a fighter, either.

No ambassadors recalled for discussions, no diplomatic notes about millions of roubles’ worth of missing jet, no jumping up and down making propaganda hay by the US – in fact, they’re withdrawing their carrier in the Med for routine maintenance and have just pulled their Patriot batteries from Turkey. Worried much? Doesn’t look like it.

My conclusion? Probably nothing happened, or if anything did happen, it most likely wasn’t the Russians and it probably wasn’t the Turks. Could have been a rebel group downing a Syrian jet inside Syria.

Move along, nothing to see here.

I did notice that almost all the mainstream media did put the word ‘unconfirmed’ in front of ‘reports’ in covering this, and the longer that ‘unconfirmed’ lingered without any confirmation, the less seriously I took the original story. It’s a classic example of Chinese Whispers, when you get down to it – but still underlines the basic principle.

The value of the information you get depends on its source. If the source is undependable, you have to treat the information warily. If the information is dependable, then you can weight the information accordingly. If it’s the Express saying the coming winter will be the worst for 50 years, I ignore it completely. The tabloid press in the UK have been running that headline yearly for the past couple of decades and they’ve yet to be correct once. If it’s the Met Office saying there’s a major storm inbound, then I take notice.

Just to lighten the mood (but stay on topic!) here’s a quick summary of the British press:

A Note on Some “Traditional” Prepper Activity.

In other words, the hype and buzz that is ‘bugging out’. (If you’re not familiar with Prepping/Survivalist terminology, I have a small glossary here.)

Bugging out is, quite simply, leaving your home and going somewhere else because it seems a safer alternative than staying holed up in your own abode. Traditionally it’s taken for granted that anyone bugging out plans on living in the wilds like some Rambo-clone, up to the eyebrows in weaponry. For me, the most important question to ask, when some newbie prepper proudly says they’ve packed their BOB and can go in ten minutes, is “where are you going to?”. That, in turn, depends on another question: why are you bugging out to begin with?

The most likely reasons to need to leave your home fast? House fire, gas leak, chemical spill, collapsed ceilings. That kind of thing. You probably need to leave fast, you probably need to go all of a couple of miles to be out of danger and you’ll probably be back in a day or two.

For me, bugging out wouldn’t be in the face of most disasters. I might relocate to a local B&B if the ceilings came down in the house, or if we had a house fire. But if WW III kicks off, a hurricane blows in, we’re snowed in… why abandon a perfectly good weatherproof, warm house in a village where we have friends and neighbours to go hunker in a wood somewhere getting exposure? We’d have to leave most of our supplies behind, our security…. everything that we can’t carry with us! As long as the house is sound, it’s safer and better to stay in it.

Having said that, I do have several bug-out locations (BOLs) planned out in case of need. They’re not spots in the wilds, though. They’re houses belonging to friends and family where I know I’ll be welcome in a crisis. Places I’ve already stashed a few necessities – a change of clothes, for example, a few days’ food so I’m not a burden on my hosts. Equally, those people know that they’re welcome at my place if they’re in need of a bed for a few days. Some are close by, others at the far end of the country and one, even, the other side of the Atlantic (currently…. it’s a yacht and can move around whenever my brother fancies different scenery).

Generally speaking, those pre-positioned caches are simply a useful way to ensure that if I’m travelling around the country, I know where I can break my journey, sleep, scoff a meal, wash and get clean clothes, then move on. Checking on my BOL stashes involves visiting friends or siblings, switching out any older food stores for fresh ones while I’m there. Having a few essentials pre-positioned means I can travel lighter if I need to leave home fast; it may seem unlikely, but as this story shows, sometimes you just don’t have time to round up the pets, grab the kids, pack a suitcase and make an orderly exit.

I’ve never been a big fan of the theory that you need to bury a plastic drum with a complete camp packed into it, somewhere in the woods, either. They can get found by others, or lost because someone builds a supermarket on them. I’d rather put my emergency stashes in the hands of people I trust to stick them in a cupboard out of the way and out of the weather.

The whole concept of bugging out, of course, also brings us to that other prepper must-have, the bug-out bag. I’ve seen some dillies in my time on various prepping sites – the one that I think took the biscuit for me was the sedentary office worker who packed a 75L military bergen with tins of food, a complete cookset including the kettle, a 6-man tent, half a dozen different knives, a stonking big axe and (I had to laugh at this one) his rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition.He didn’t have a sleeping bag or waterproofs.  He’d never even picked it up and put it on his back, let alone found out how far he could hike with it!

Some people watch too many films.

Clean clothes, washkit, phone card, a week’s meds if you need meds, a spare pair of glasses if you use them, perhaps a street-legal penknife, a bottle of water, waterproofs maybe, and enough cash to book into the nearest Premier Inn or Travelodge, or buy a bus ticket to a mate’s place. I keep some pemmican in mine but a packet of boiled sweets, or other long-life food that’s easy to store without it melting (don’t pack chocolate!) and needs little or no cooking is useful. If you’re technologically minded, scan all your important documents (insurance papers, birth certificate, driving licence, that kind of thing) and put them on a thumb-drive.

While we’re on the subject of things worth saving, I recently watched a couple of big, tough he-man preppers discussing things they absolutely could not bear to leave behind in an evacuation. These heart-breaking items of value? The family photo album for one bloke and a collection of shoes spanning several years of an infant daughter’s life for the other.

Get a grip, guys! Sentiment will get you killed. If the house is on fire, delaying your escape to grab your daughter is understandable, but risking your life to rescue outgrown shoes? That’s just insane.

Keep it simple, and keep it relevant. If you’ve packed so much kit that you can’t lift it, you might as well not pack any at all. I make sure I can still sprint for a bus, as a useful rule of thumb.

For longer-term evacuations, such as might be caused by TEOTWAWKI, the traditional BOB, designed to cover you for 72 hours, isn’t suitable either. If the country is invaded, WWIII kicks off, civilisation crashes and burns, it’s not going to be over in 72 hours. The whole idea of the 72 hour bag is borrowed from US government advice for natural diasters. If you’re in California and an earthquake strikes, then having 3 days of supplies handy might be all you need. In the UK,  you’re either going to need a lot less because it’s not that serious, or you’ll need to be prepped for a lot longer. Even in the States, Hurricane Katrina proved that 72 hours is a complete misconception – it took a lot longer to rescue everyone from New Orleans than that! If you think back to spring 2014, when there was extensive flooding across southern England, it was May before some places had dried out enough to get the insurance assessors in, let alone fix the damage.

At that point, the INCH bag would be more appropriate and I’ll cover that some other time.

In other news today:- 6 more bunnies in the freezer, the garlic is looking good in the garden and I’ve just been tipped off to a ferretting opportunity that needs chasing up! Ironically, the rifle range is overrun with rabbits….