Talkin' trash to the garbage around me.

17 December, 2005

Air stagnation: Nickel and Dimed by the Weather

Okay, so this winter to date seems to have been a continuation of the last... dry and cold. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I'm accustomed to a certain amount of precipitation - nine months worth of the old liquid sunshine. But I'm not getting any of it. This is certainly a bummer from my perspective as a kayaker: we've had about 5 days of good creeking flows at a time when I should be able to choose a watershed willy-nilly and have enough liquid to float my boat (not that I've really had any time to kayak, of course).

Of more significance, however, is that the cold, dry, unusual weather we've had for the past few years 'round these parts may be having immediate and chronic consequences on our physical and economic health. The southern Willamette Valley is currently in the throes of a cold surface air inversion, a phenomenon where high pressure and cold temperatures cause temperature-stratified layers of air to form. On the valley floor, this causes the air to stagnate, and pollutants are trapped at ground level. During a "normal" Northwest winter, the storms that roll in off the Pacific every 3-7 days typically keep the air flowing and the rains rinse the atmosphere of particulate matter. The implications for respiratory problems due to this cold air stagnation are obvious - it's unhealthy. And the air quality over the last 31 days in Eugene doesn't look so hot - 17 days of moderate to "pretty bad" air quality.

When you look at the color-coded Air Quality Index, search around the site and notice that each color is correlated with a home wood heating advisory. The worse the air quality, the more restrictions placed on wood burning. Now, with the price of natural gas going through the roof (estimated to increase by 33-50% over last year in the NW), more and more people are relying upon wood heating devices and electrical devices to heat their homes and save money - our household being no exception. Every day that there are restrictions on home wood heating and we have to use our gas furnace costs us roughly $7. $7 a day. And it's beginning to add up. Even keeping the temperature at 68 degrees (62 degrees when we're in bed) is draining us. We'd keep the thermostat lower and put on another layer if we weren't concerned about the health of our child.

Are our current weather patterns related to global climate change? I can't make any sort of definitive claim - but it is certainly possible. Whether it is or not, our situation here in Eugene does demonstrate how dependent upon the natural environment and the weather our economic well-being is. It's not just catastrophic storms like Katrina and Rita that wreak havoc on our health and pocketbooks. The processes of climate change are finding multiple ways to bleed us dry.

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