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Will climate change keep sailors from heading out?

The freak storm that contributed to the death of two sailors in the Chicago to Mackinac recently prompted an investigation by US Sailing into the circumstances. Doubtless they will find factors that if modified may have saved those lives. Yet, with climate change wreaking havoc the world over, at an ever accelerating pace it seems, it may become impossible to predict, avoid and/or prepare for the worst the weather has in store for us. How will that affect our relationship with the waters of the world?

We have long been suggesting that weather patterns have been changing perceptibly. We’ve been convinced that these intensified extremes are exacerbated by climate change. It’s not about global warming. It’s about overall climate change in which the extremes are getting ‘extremer’. The extreme events occur erratically and violently, which makes them virtually impossible to predict and, therefore, very difficult to avoid. Can we do anything to prepare ourselves for these climate change extreme weather factors or will their unpredictable nature make it more likely that more of us will stay off the water?

We are both scientists by training, he a marine biologist and I a biologist/biochemist. We like to think that makes us a bit more aware and bit more likely to observe than the average person, although sailors are highly attuned to the world around them too. Perhaps the combination of science and sailing makes us observe that the change is happening much faster than theoretical science would predict. We happen to think we are on the brink of global climate instability, the tipping point being somewhere just beyond the next weather anomaly. I don’t have any proof. I just have a growing sense of unease and a series of personal experiences to go by.

We noticed and wrote about the changes on Long Island Sound and in New England waters years ago. Our first cruising sailboat was hit by lightning – twice – on Long Island Sound, as the annual displays of thunderstorms got progressively more violent. One year, we watched in horror as lightning bolts stitched their way across the sky in a circular pattern around us. We had nowhere to run. Another year, we had a freak storm hit while we were anchored of Greenwich when the wind suddenly veered 180 degrees and blew at over 50 knots for more than 30 minutes. It was a microburst. You could see the pattern on the water. Tornados have become commonplace where they were rarely heard of in NY, NJ and CT.

In 2007, we were sailing off the coast of Florida where a harmful algal bloom (HAB) became airborne and caused severe airway distress (i.e., asthma) affecting me and several others in our group. I had never had asthma before. It took a year or longer to resolve and I was lucky it did. We just read in the Sunday newspaper magazine that no one knows exactly why the algal blooms become toxic but climate change is thought to be contributing to its increasing frequency.

In 2008, we sailed across the North Atlantic for the first time. The pattern for late summer across this section of ocean suggested we might encounter three gales en route. Instead we faced six gales and one strong storm – that’s more than twice the rate predicted. In 2009, we crossed again and this time, the Azores and Bermuda highs covered the entire North Atlantic. There was no wind anywhere. In fact, Herb Hilgenberg reported no 4mb pressure gradient over 800 miles - the stretch from the Azores to the Cape Verdes. The diurnal fluctuation was more than that. He had never seen the highs dip so low, pushed down by the gales trucking along the northern latitudes. The extremes are getting extremer.

Even on land, the evidence of acceleration is mounting. The desserts of Africa are growing larger and drier as the American prairies alternate between flood and drought. Extreme temperatures are causing summer deaths to mount in Europe and the States. Tornadoes larger than ever previously recorded are swallowing up whole towns. Mudslides take down villages. Fires devastate the countryside. This winter, there was snow in Ireland and the UK, and prolonged periods of freeze that killed all the palm trees on the Island of Ireland. That was followed by hurricane force winds, twice, in the early spring burning the leaves off the trees along the entire west coast.

In an odd reversal of fortune, jellyfish are taking advantage and proliferating the world over. Jellyfish are taking over Europe's favorite swimming spots in increasing numbers every year. They used to come to shore once every decade, stay for a few years, and then disappear for many years. Scientists blame climate change, ocean acidification, and overfishing for the proliferation of the stinging nuisance. Just this year in 2011, jellyfish clogged the intakes of two nuclear reactors, one in Japan and one in Israel. We saw miles and miles for days and days of Portuguese Man of War as we crossed the Atlantic for the third time in 2010. It’s hard to ignore such signs.

A guest editorial from Sail-World USA's editor David Schmidt, who led the Sail-World official coverage of the Chicago Mackinac event said:

“While these are the first sailing-related deaths to have taken place during the Race to Mackinac's proud 103-year history, it's important to recognize that weather patterns the world over seem to be intensifying with climate change.

Certainly the high-90s heat wave that was washing over the Midwest at the time of the tragedy compounded the storm's already-terrible power, but freshwater sailors and race organisers worldwide must now be prepared to encounter beyond-cyclone-force winds such as the supercell-cum-meteorological juggernaut that rolled this fleet.”

So, is that going to scare sailors away from the lakes and the seas? We hope not. We think it’s going to be just as risky to stay on land. It’s impossible to predict where a supercell tornado will touch down with enough warning these days, or where a flash flood will inundate, where the freak wave will rear its angry head, or where the earth’s crust will shift creating lava flows and tsunamis of devastation. So, as it’s not something we can figure out, we might as well go sailing anyway. And at least out there on the salty ocean, we might have a bit of warning that a monster hurricane is threatening to engulf the entire ocean. And with that warning, we might break out that bottle of reserve champagne and enjoy our final moments on this side of the rainbow. See you on the other side!

"Buy a boat. Live on a hill"
Emmet Dalton

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