On Aug. 23, 1856, an American scientist forecast the now-weeks-long heat wave smothering Key West and the Florida Keys. The short scientific paper, published in the American Journal of Science and Arts, established the science of what we now call climate change.
Just two pages long, Eunice Foote’s paper said air filled with an overabundance of carbon dioxide tested significantly hotter than “common air,” as she called it. Her experiments also proved that high water content in the air made for higher temperatures. Hence, 92 degrees is a lot hotter in Key West than in, say, Santa Fe. You know, that ol’ “but it’s a dry heat” thing.
Then on Feb. 7, 1861, Irish scientist John Tyndall, the man usually credited with the first observations about future global warming, presented another paper taking Foote’s experiments further. According to one report “Tyndall also recognized the possible effects on the climate, saying ‘every variation’ of water vapor or carbon dioxide ‘must produce a change of climate.’ He also noted the contribution other hydrocarbon gases, such as methane, could make to climate change, writing that ‘an almost inappreciable addition’ of gases like methane would have ‘great effects on climate’.”
And here we are, 167 years after Eunice Foote’s virtually forgotten scientific paper, wondering if Key West’s once-seductive, hot-and-humid weather can get much worse. It can. It will.
We are well past doing anything to slow down, much less stop, the effects of hydrocarbon gases on Earth’s climate. Any chance we had was way back in the 1950s, when scientists warned of the effects of 100-plus years of the Industrial Revolution between the 1830s and World War II. We pooh-poohed the warnings then and kept right on doing so.
Remember this? In March 2015, then-Florida-Governor Rick Scott prohibited the terms climate change, global warming, sea level rise and sustainability in state documents and forbade state employee or agency from using the terms. (Most anyone with any sense got around that by ignoring him since even the most rabid Scott supporter could see at least sea levels rising with their own eyes even if they disagreed with the causes.)
Key West weather: Even the water’s hot
It is, by anyone’s measure, hot in ways its not been hot before. Summers in Key West historically have been just under 90 degrees with a decent breeze to keep things tolerable. Not now. The Keys and Key West have set all-time records for heat and humidity over stretches of days-into-weeks. It’s so dry that even my drought-tolerant native trees and plants are weary of conserving water.
Ocean temperatures are tickling the mid-90s. Fort Zach has been at 92 for days. And, my friends, there’s nothing much refreshing about water temperatures in that range.
Not to mention my tap water. Here’s something every on-island resident knows and visitors are shocked by: When one turns on the cold water tap in the kitchen, the water is warm — and it gets warmer the longer it runs. That’s because our water pipes are barely below ground and oft-times not even that. Some of my PVC water pipes run on top of the ground. So, the water in the pipes in the house is cooled a bit by the air conditioning but as soon as I run through that, I begin pulling water from those above ground pipes and that water is at ambient temperature. Like 90 degrees.
There’s one piece of weirdly good news out of the excessive heat: The record-breaking sargassum blob that was predicted to wreck Key West’s beaches this summer isn’t happening. It isn’t that the sargassum isn’t out there; it is. In part it’s because record-setting ocean temperatures created near perfect conditions for back-to-back tropical storms in May and June, months earlier in hurricane season than normal. Those storms blew apart the sargassum carpet heading to the Keys.
I’m tempted to say along with everyone else, “thank heaven for air conditioning.” And, therein lies our challenge. We can accommodate rising temperatures and sea level rise. We can genetically modify our plants to grow in sub-optimum conditions. We can raise our roads and build our homes on stilts. But every time we do, especially when we think we can do it on the cheap, we perpetuate the underlying causes of global warming.
I don’t have a magic wand. But I can turn up — way up — the AC during the day.