By Alan S. Kesselheim for The Daily Climate
BOZEMAN, Mont. – About three miles up the ski trail I start thinking about the "new normal." In Montana this February this new reality leaves out winter as we know it. It’s a state in which one inch of overnight snowfall is enough to goad me out onto the trail. I catch myself rationalizing conditions, thinking things are pretty good, when, in fact, conditions suck by any historic measure.
This season’s weather seems ominous, off-kilter. It makes me nervous.
At the same time, I can't complain. My sister, in New England, reported spring flowers starting to peek above ground in February and birds migrating a month ahead of schedule. People I know in northern Minnesota were whining about not being able to go ice fishing in January because there was no ice. They saw people out in boats where, normally, ice shacks hunker over red-and-white fishing bobbers.
By contrast, there are parts of the world with extreme winter, whacko winter. Alaska, for instance, where children are warned to stay off of snowdrifts for fear of avalanche and towns are literally sold out of snow shovels. Or the mountains of eastern Europe, where avalanches are burying homes that have stood for centuries, and villagers get food by helicopter. So much winter no one knows what to do about it or how to explain it.
Only the most obtuse construe these outbreaks of hyper-winter as a refutation of problematic change. Those who crow, "What global warming? Look at the winter we’re having!" As if Category 5 weather is reassuring.
Light flurries, gray clouds
Given the alternatives, three miles up into the woods on skis, with an inch of new snow on top of pavement-hard ice seems pretty cush. Lodgepole pines whisper in the breeze. Light flurries sift down from low, gray clouds. My dog, Beans, noses off trail, treeing squirrels, following moose tracks, investigating scent posts. For him, every day is a new normal. No existential angst hangs like smog on Beans' horizon. I envy his perspective.
Cush, perhaps, but the inescapable scent of reality shift seeps in, no matter where we live, and no matter where we fall on the spectrum of climate change buy-in. It's getting to the point that belief is moot, and who caused it is moot. What matters is that we have to cope and no one really has a clue what's in store or how to go about it. It’s always there in the background now, a faint, anxious note.
In my Montana existence, it manifests itself in the fact that I routinely pick ripe tomatoes from my garden well into October, more than a month later than I was able to 20 years ago. In the fact that cold snaps, this past decade, rarely even dip below zero. Ten below and everyone is bitching about the cold. What happened to 35 or 40 below? Used to be that every winter we'd get a couple of doses of deep cold when no one could start their cars and the pine beetles actually died off. Hell, there were weeks this January when I barely turned the heat on in my house.
The new normal. It sounds like something we might aspire to, like the latest operating system. Sign up early and get a free phone! It's the state of affairs that no politician has the gumption to face head-on. God forbid an elected official might level with us and start getting to work on a response. Instead, we have a state of affairs manifesting itself in outbreaks of 100 straight days of 100 degree weather, or wildfires in January. One marked by desperate strategies to dredge oil out of tar sands and shale beds and calling it an energy policy. One making the lifestyles we’ve all indulged over the past couple of generations untenable.
Certainly the fly-to-Paris-for-the-weekend, build-water-guzzling-cities-full-of-golf-courses-in-the-desert lifestyles are starting to look untenable. But how do we confront our most mundane and commonplace habits that we can't really imagine doing without? Things like suburbs, cross-country air travel, produce shipped from Chile to my Montana grocery store, routine commuting to work, air conditioning.... For that matter, driving 10 miles to a ski trail for some exercise, as I have this day. All of it, in the new normal, is questionable. Maybe more than questionable. Maybe ethically insupportable.
The unsettling thing is that none of the landscape is clear. How will it come? How bad will it be? What to do to anticipate the impact? Will it be a slow, incremental erosion of conditions or a sudden calamity? Is it already too late? We feel our way blind across the DMZ of climate battleground, reacting to the next surprise, clinging to the old comforts and habits, hoping that some strategy will reveal our salvation. Meanwhile, we listen for the next dire newsflash, hoping it won't affect us. Hoping that, as much as possible, we can keep doing what we did yesterday.
A day like this, and a winter like this, is a reminder. A warning. Yes, the day is beautiful, exhilarating, wonderful, but under that, it is also deeply unsettling. I ski toward the mountains in the gray distance. The trees stand sentinel in the forest: silent, ancient witnesses. A moose grazes in the willows by the streambed, flicking his ears, surviving another winter, this one easier than most.
I strive for that in-the-now mantra. Glide, kick, pole. Glide, kick, pole. Let the mind drift, feel the flakes of snow melt against the warmth of my face, smell the pines, tune to the fathomless hum of silence. Be in this day.
Problem is, my mantra isn't doing the job this time. We're wrapping up a blue, disappointing winter – one that likely portends the norm 20 years hence. I'm part of the problem; all of us are. More and more, it is really hard to center in-the-now with that future looming.
Alan Kesselheim is a frequent contributor to DailyClimate.org. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.