Globalisation: a view from the Jetstream

The global weather makes politics. Fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan, India and China, then revolution in North Africa
Ángel Gómez de Ágreda
15 March 2011

Moscow was on the news during last summer due to the spectacular fires which burnt for weeks in the Russian plains. Smoke turned the city into a dark version of XIX Century London were it was difficult to breath and even to see a few feet from your nose. After the fires were extinguished and the atmosphere cleared in the capital, the World’s attention focused somewhere else.

That was especially true since, immediately afterwards, Pakistan, China and India suffered unseasoned flooding to which even the Armed Forces had to respond. Heavy losses in lives, crops and livestock resulted.

At that moment, there were not many who established a relationship between both phenomena. After all, Russian steppes are not that close to the Himalayas and fire and water are antagonistic elements.

There is, however, a common cause for both disasters. A few scientific publications claimed that the reason behind the two of them was a potent High Pressure System which, uncharacteristically, stood its ground for several weeks somewhere close to the Urals. The anticyclone remained stubbornly blocking the access to weather fronts which could have brought relieve for high temperatures in the area. High temperatures and lack of humidity, in turn, were at the root of the fires which destroyed a good deal of the crops of the largest exporter on Earth.

Blinded by the smoke in Moscow, many analysts overlooked the tremendous costs that the fires were having for the World’s grain production. By September, estimates were that 36% of Russian crops had been burned or ruined.

The High Pressure System which stood over the fires in Russia diverted not only the frontal systems but also the Jet Stream. The Jet Stream is a very fast air current running West to East at 30-40 thousand feet. It is often used by airliners in transcontinental flights to save fuel and it is the reason why it takes less to fly from America to Europe than vice versa.

Unable to follow its usual path, the Jet Stream was diverted last summer to lower latitudes where it coincided with the Monsoon. The clash caused the largest flooding in the area of the last eighty years.

Many lives were lost and the World focused on sending help for the countries affected.

Even if it escaped the casual observer at the moment, economic analysts quickly saw the implications of the massive lost of crops. Prices of grain in the futures’ markets rose immediately. Russia’s announcement that they were unable to export the thousands of tons many countries counted on did not help much either.

A few months later we are witnessing more risings. This time is the population in several Arab nations revolting. It is worth remembering that the uprising begun as a result of the increase in food prices. No matter how they were manipulated later, they were not politically motivated at first. It was the inability of parents to bring food to their family tables which triggered the revolution.

Those regimes which were wise enough to take every measure to subsidize bread and the like in time suffered the least.

For those places where being in a crisis does not mean that you cannot go to a fancy restaurant for dinner but that you do not dine at all the rise in grain prices was all it took for the destitute to revolt.

Once again, the urgent prevents us from facing the important. The humanitarian crises, fuel prices on the rise and uncontrolled migrations are our immediate concern. When we are done dealing with them, few will look back to the causes behind the problem.

Three years ago we lived a similar situation when oil prices made energy companies look for alternative fuels. Thousands of hectares were devoted to growing bio-fuels instead of food. Even places like Ethiopia, were food is a commodity beyond the reach of many, sold or rented land and devoted precious water resources for this activity. Madagascar witnessed popular uprisings when a well known Korean firm tried to devote much of the island’s arable land to growing oil-producing plants.

This economically globalized World is – it always has been, whether we knew it or not – climatologically global too. When climate conditions are sufficiently altered somewhere in the World not only the World climate is affected, but this global economy of ours also is.

Revolutions were only encouraged by the economic deterioration caused by the rise in food prices. The nations affected in Africa and Asia had many other problems. When we now look south across the Mediterranean we see these problems but the spark that started the fire originated in climate disorders half a World away this summer.

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