Cold Snaps, Climate, and Evolution

I’m going to try to connect two different discussions I’ve heard recently using climate change as the bridge. I heard last week from someone living in rural Idaho that they experienced a record cold snap the week of April 10th through the 16th, providing evidence that God and Mother Nature, rather than humans, were in charge of temperatures on Earth, counter to what global warming alarmists contend. Then, on Saturday (April 23rd), Colorado Public Radio rebroadcast a production of RadioLab that originally aired in March on which the hosts discussed a study conducted in the 1970s by Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Simberloff, David Raup, and Thomas Schopf that raised questions about Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest.

I’ll begin by making the point that has been made repeatedly, and should not ever have to be made. Day-to-day, week-to-week, and even month-to-month variations in weather cannot lead to inferences about climate unless they are trended over many years. Furthermore, climate includes other elements of weather besides temperature, including wind, moisture, ultraviolet radiation, cloud cover, and snow pack, year after year.

Nonetheless, I was curious to see how the week of week of April 10th through April 16, 2022 in Coeur D’Alene compared to the previous 25 years. Using the website, I was able to look up the high and low temperatures for each of the dates in this range for the past 26 years. For comparison purposes, I looked up the same data for Fairbanks, Alaska, since I had heard that climate change was more extreme closer to the Arctic Circle. Though still nearly 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, I thought Fairbanks might offer some insight.

I was then challenged with how to summarize the data to provide some useful information. I decided that for each of the twenty-six years in question I would average the seven daily high temperatures for the week and the seven daily low temperatures for the week for both cities. When I plotted the data I ended up with a busy and rather inconclusive graph.

The mean high temperatures for Coeur D’Alene show a slight downward trend, while the opposite is true for Fairbanks. Both cities show a downward trend for mean low temperatures. Interestingly, the week in question was unusually warm in Fairbanks in 2012, and unusually cold the following year. 2022 showed the lowest mean high temperature for the week in question for Coeur D’Alene, but had been preceded by two fairly warm years. The mean low for the week in question in 2022 in Coeur D’Alene (24.4) was about 2 1/2 degrees colder than the second coldest mean low temperature recorded in 1999 ( 26.9). If nothing else, the graph shows that for the week of April 10th through April 16th, year-to-year since 1997, for both Fairbanks and Coeur D’Alene, the average high and low temperatures vary quite a bit. No single year is a good predictor of what will happen the following year.

I’m told by climate experts that these seasonal variations are to be expected, but more stable indicators of climate change can be found in shrinking polar ice caps, rising sea temperatures, chronic drought conditions in some regions and chronic flooding in others, changing migratory patterns of birds and mammals, and changes to floral habitat. Those who think that God and Mother Nature control daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly weather events must also think these changes, clearly documented over the past fifty years, fit into the plan.

When I hear friends argue that God is in charge of weather, I wonder what they imagine. Do they see God looking down on Earth as he files his fingernails and clips his toenails, trying to decide whether to inflict meteorological pleasure or pain on the creatures below that day? Perhaps he suddenly sees Ricky Gervais and decides he will cause a blizzard while blowing Ricky’s furnace pilot light out. Regarding climate, maybe God is just bored with polar ice caps and wants to change the shape of the continents by raising sea levels.

To counter the evidence of human-caused climate change, skeptics point to Earth’s history of repeated ice ages followed by spells of exceptional heat. But these arguments overlook the known fact that carbon dioxide and methane are heat-trapping gasses and their increased concentration in the atmosphere over the past century can be measured. They also overlook how quickly the climate is changing now compared to the historical record, and how we have fashioned civilization to make life for humans comfortable in the climate the existed before the human-caused acceleration began. If the acceleration continues at this pace we will not be able to move our cities and adapt out technology to accommodate it.

This brings me to the RadioLab segment entitled “Life In a Barrel.” In a computer simulation of evolution conducted by Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Simberloff, David Raup, and Thomas Schopf, they discovered that, rather than survival of a species turning out to be a reward to those most “fit,” extinction seemed to happen at random. The broadcasters also pointed out, independent of this research, that 99% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct.

I haven’t read a lot of Darwin’s original work but I have been taught it and have heard his theories discussed and repeated. Most people I have heard who talk about evolution explain it as a process that results in continuously improving species on the planet – both within the species and in the creation of new species. Some people think of this as akin to a divine process, and think of “survival of the fittest” as meaning that the creatures which survive are meant to survive, because they are more suited for survival, or more “fit.” They attach a qualitative value to the term “fit.” But it is important to think of “fit” more in terms of a match to the environmental conditions that exist on Earth, and to consider that conditions on Earth are constantly changing. Most of the changes take place too slowly to be observed by a single generation, although there are exceptions. Floods, volcanoes, tidal waves, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can change the natural environment in an instant. A creature that is “fit” to survive on a dry shoreline one day is no longer “fit” to survive in the same spot after a flood. The waterfowl that were “fit” to live in a bayou would give way to scorpions and tarantulas after years of prolonged drought.

I wonder if the Gould computer simulation found randomness in extinction due to the random fluctuations in Earth’s environment? It is widely accepted that dinosaurs died out suddenly after a meteor hit the Earth. They were probably quite “fit” to survive until that happened. Most natural disasters are huge but don’t affect the entire planet. They kill many creatures locally, but are not widespread enough to cause extinction. Apparently the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs was an exception. However much Earth has changed since humans came into existence, these changes have happened slowly enough, or been confined geographically enough, that humans have continued to be “fit” enough to survive. However, I do question our fitness in one regard. Unlike most other species, we don’t seem to be able to survive on Earth the way it is. We have to modify the environment in order to live comfortably on Earth. Ironically, these very modifications are what now threaten our “fitness” for survival, due to the way they are affecting our climate at such a rapid pace – a pace that does not appear to be giving us a chance to adapt. And the changes we are bringing about are happening on a global scale.

These changes are harming other species more quickly than they are harming humans, too. We only have to consider the animals that have gone extinct in the past 100 years to recognize how humans are changing Earth in a way that threatens all species. These include the paradise parrot, the passenger pigeon, the Sicilian wolf, the Japanese sea lion, the Bubal antelope, the Tasmanian tiger, the heath hen, the golden toad, the Carolina parakeet, the Caspian tiger, and the Guam flying fox. Besides these recent extinctions, nearly twenty species are considered critically endangered currently, all due to environmental changes that are human caused.

It is widely held that our large brains are what set us apart from and make us superior to other creatures on the planet, and that the mutations that led to our having more sophisticated language, speech, and other forms of communication were part of an ever-improving process. Walking upright and having opposable thumbs also set us apart from all but a dozen or so other species on the planet. But what if what we call evolution isn’t really part of an ever-improving process. Mutations happen randomly in species all the time – most are too subtle to detect, while others are considered deformities and often are incompatible with life. If humans have survived so well for so many eons due to “fitness,” would we need to use our opposable thumbs in conjunction with our tongues and oversized brains to modify our environment to make it “fit” us? It is these thumbs, after all, that allow us to grip the tools that we use to so drastically alter our environment. Here I must also say that thumbs allow us to play musical instruments, which, as far as I’m concerned, demonstrates what beautiful creatures humans can be.

I know this next idea contradicts the genetic, chronological, and paleontological evidence, but why don’t we amuse ourselves for a moment and consider that the great apes might have evolved from humans to be a better “fit” for the natural world. Gorillas, bonobos, chimps, and other primates can live in the natural world as it is, without having to modify it and make it less survivable for other species. Doesn’t that make them superior to us? On the other hand, we do believe we have the ability to study, learn, teach each other, and collaborate. But the evidence is that we rarely practice these skills in a way that enhances human survival in the long run, especially now, when faced with such existential threats.

Planet Earth will only continue to support human life for so long. Barring some some disaster such as a meteor strike or a seismic or volcanic event releasing toxic gas across the entire planet, it might take eons for conditions to change enough that humans and other mammals could no longer survive. And if changes to the environment on Earth happen slowly enough, random mutations to some humans might produce a new species of human-like creatures who can adapt to these changes. But the struggle to maintain our quality of life in the midst of rapidly occurring human-caused climate change is a different challenge. It would be hyperbolic to suggest we’re facing imminent human extinction due to our continued burning of fossil fuels. But the threat of economic collapse, the demise of commerce as we know it, crop failures and resulting food shortages, and new pandemics are real. I wish I could believe that one cold week in Idaho meant we didn’t have to do anything to prepare for all this.