Tales from the Trail

Honk! Wheeze! Atchoo! It’s getting hot in Washington, and it’s not just the weather

April 21, 2010

USA/Spring in Washington means cherry blossoms, azaleas and a collective wet sneeze from the hundreds of thousands of allergy sufferers in the region. This year, a long snow-covered winter may actually have protected plants while an early burst of summer-like temperatures called forth the blossoms, creating what felt to many like a pollen bomb.

Plants that would usually have bloomed in an orderly sequence — forsythia, daffodils, tulips, cherry blossoms, dogwood, azaleas and lilacs — are all flowering together. Cars, streets, pets and other plants are covered with a gritty yellow-green sneeze-inducing residue. Allergy symptoms are the common result, and they cost a bundle.

It doesn’t help that Washington is part of a U.S. trend spurred by climate change, with the signs of spring coming about 10 days earlier than they did two decades ago. That means some missed connections in the natural world, as some plants and animals adapt better than others to the early onset of spring.

There’s another kind of early heat settling in over the U.S. capital, and that’s the run-up to new legislation to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the next priority for the Obama administration now that health care reform has passed through Congress. The compromise legislation is expected to be unveiled next week, a few days after Earth Day on April 22.

As Washington deals with this meteorological and legislative warming trend, scientists are concerned about some heat that has apparently gone missing. About half of the excess heat generated by human activities over the 150 years or so simply can’t be accounted for.┬áLots of this extra heat is stashed in the world’s oceans, scientists report. But the rest of it has to go someplace and researchers haven’t figured out where.

EUROPE-AIR/Is there any possibility that this missing heat is what’s fueling those volcanic eruptions in Iceland? “The answer is a definite no,” says Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. The volcanic heat might help solve the missing heat conundrum if it were substantial enough, but it isn’t. “On a global basis, the amount (of heat from the Icelandic volcano) is very tiny and at least an order of magnitude too small.”

The volcano has been enough to have an impact on some events in Washington, including this weekend’s meeting of global financial leaders. Some participants have been stranded elsewhere or delayed in arriving, even as the volcanic ash cloud moved off and air travel from Europe resumed. They’ll participate by videoconference if they can’t get here, meeting organizers at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund say.

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Photo credits: Reuters/Jim Young (cherry blossoms, Washington, March 25, 2010) ; Reuters/Lucas Jackson (Lava spews from a volcano as it erupts near Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland, April 19, 2010)

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