Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Peak Oil Crisis: The North Atlantic Oscillation

Falls Church News-Presss

By Tom Whipple
October 20, 2005

Back in our school days, we all learned how the Gulf Stream sweeps out of the warm Caribbean , flows along our East Coast, and crosses the Atlantic where all that warm water keeps Northern Europe from turning into a giant glacier.

What our teachers didn't tell us, however, is there is a similar and even more potent phenomenon hovering between America and Europe known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Every winter since the last Ice Age, a giant low-pressure area forms over Iceland and a giant high-pressure area over the Azores . The clockwise and counterclockwise circulation around this pair propels vast amounts of warm air out of the southern United States to northern Europe where it plays a major part in keeping the region habitable in the winter.

However, every few decades an unusual phenomenon happens. The pressure difference between the high and low weakens so much, only smaller quantities of America 's southern air are transported straight across the Atlantic towards the Mediterranean . Northern Europe suddenly becomes downright cold. One of the more famous occurrences of this phenomenon happened in the early 1940's when Hitler was invading Russia . Remember those pictures of German troops on the Eastern Front trying to survive 30 degrees below without the proper arctic gear? That was the North Atlantic Oscillation.

Now you may ask, what does all this climatology have to do with peak oil here in America ? The answer, unfortunately, may be more than you really wanted to know. When that big flow of slightly used American air is being sucked by New England on the way to old England , it serves to help block the frigid Canadian air that tries to float down onto the US during the winter. When the trans-Atlantic airflow is reduced our Northeast can get mighty cold too.

Last week, the London Times reported that her Majesty's government had called an emergency meeting of lots of important people. This meeting is to discuss what to do if the country runs out of heating fuel this winter. It seems the British long-range forecasters are now predicting there’s a 2 out of 3 chance the NAO will turn negative this winter and that Britain , and the rest of Northern Europe , will see lots of very cold weather. How harsh? When we had one of these negative oscillations back in the 1970's parts of Europe burned 30 percent more heating fuel to keep going.

Now you may recall that 40 years ago, the British along with the Norwegians discovered lots of oil and gas in the North Sea . Being sensible folks, they promptly shut down lots of their old fashioned mines that produced smoky coal and plumbed themselves up to heat natural gas.

Things went well until a few years ago when the North Sea oil and gas fields went into depletion and are now at the point where the British are close to not producing enough natural gas to cover domestic needs during the winter. This year, they have only 11 day's reserve of natural gas compared to an average of 55 days on the continent. In order to keep people from freezing, the British are making plans to shutdown large industrial gas users if supplies get too low.

What about this side of the Atlantic ? Leaving aside for a minute the issue of whether the big oscillation is really about to turn negative with all that it implies, it’s obvious a substantial, sudden increase in demand for heating fuels from any user as large as Europe, is going to drive world prices for oil products much higher.

What does the US Government say about all this? Last week the Weather Service's National Climate Prediction Center issued their outlook for the coming winter. It seems that from the center of the country to the west coast it should be a relatively toasty winter— which is a good thing because we don't have much heating fuel to keep us warm this year.

For the northeast however, where the British fear we will be shoveling for months, the current prediction is "equal chances" for warmer or colder than normal. As part of their prediction, the Center acknowledges that should North Atlantic Oscillation turn negative, our east coast will have "more frequent cold air outbreaks and snowstorms." However, the bottom-line is that "the phase of the NOA is difficult to anticipate more than two weeks in advance."

There clearly is quite a difference in apprehension here. The British are sounding alarms and ordering all hands to battle stations, while the US is saying "we can't tell yet" on an obscure government web site. The difference of course is directly proportional to the consequences.

The British fully recognize that should the country run out of heating fuel while they are engulfed in 20 degrees below normal weather, the country would be facing the greatest challenge since the Battle of Britain. Thus, when an "experimental" climate-modeling program says there is a 2 out of 3 chance of very cold weather next January; they take to the barricades and start planning.

In the US however, we face a somewhat different set of circumstances. First, it is only the northeast that would have a problem should the NAO go negative. Second, given the precarious state of our natural gas and gasoline reserves, any official announcement that the east coast just might be an icebox next winter would drive the oil futures market and the price of gasoline through the roof. This in turn would drive down the stock market and the administration's popularity polls.

Given this warning would be based on an experimental climate model, from the government's perspective there really is little harm in waiting until winter to see what happens. We are not going to ration anything before the Congressional elections unless we absolutely have to.

In the meantime, it seems prudent to lay in a good supply of firewood and check the shovels just in case a series of snowstorms hits the east coast this winter. Also keep in mind that if you should hear someone complain about the price of gasoline going to $4 next February, you can now smile knowingly and say "Yes, it was bound to happen once the North Atlantic Oscillation turned negative."


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