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Let Us Eat Jellyfish?


When I woke up on Monday morning and looked outside at the falling snow, my first thought was “Ah, that’s what January is supposed to look like.”

Granted, I have the luxury of being neither the person who had to clean off the car and drive it nor the one who had to shovel the sidewalks. And granted, perhaps I haven’t been upstate long enough to overcome my upbringing of New Jersey winters where we usually got maybe one or two snows per winter that actually last more than a day.

But when my mother-in-law, who recently and reluctantly moved back to this clime from Florida, gets up and makes a snow angel in the lawn before 9 AM, you know that it’s more than just the skiers who found something a little disconcerting about our recent extended January thaw.

Like everyone else who’s been fretting about fuel bills and doubling up on the wool socks, I certainly enjoyed the chance to walk around outside bare-headed for a few days, even if I wasn’t thrilled with the torrential rains and howling winds. But even the pleasant warmth was creepy. Enjoying it felt a little like make-up sex in an argument you know is going to eventually end your relationship.

Is that over-dramatic? It’s hard to know. Global warming is hard to talk about without sounding either dramatic or pedantic. But the conversation is starting to be marginally easier.

After a couple conversations about it recently, I perused the news reports on the topic a little more closely than I had in a long time and found something I hadn’t expected to find: In terms of media coverage, science seems to have triumphed. The obligatory nod toward the tiny minority of oil-company-funded naysayers who try to argue that everything’s fine has nearly disappeared. (If only the same thing would happen in the evolution debate.)

In South Carolina, the recent news is about the possibility of the extinction of brook trout in waters that are already just barely cool enough for them. Several Arctic communities are asking the government of Canada to relocate them because their permafrost and ice sheets are melting. Shifty politicians are now trying to adjust the numbers to say they are making emissions go down, rather than denying the need for it. This year’s hurricane season left most people in this country uneasy and willing to accept that something major may be going on.

This doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet. It doesn’t mean the United States has agreed to limit emissions. It doesn’t mean we have any sort of grasp on the complexity of climate change or can accurately identify which changes in the natural world are being prompted primarily by warming and which are not.

Japan, for example, is trying to figure out how to save its fisheries from an invasion of giant (like 440 pounds each) jellyfish with poisonous stings. These jellyfish breed near China, and some usually make it out to Japan, but last year and this year they got there earlier, spread farther, and appeared in much greater numbers, clogging fishing nets and destroying local fishing economies.

The cause is hard to pinpoint, mostly because there are so many candidates in the running. Heavy rains that washed more nutrients off China’s fields and provided a strong surge of fresh water in the direction of Japan could be part of the problem. So could the fact that the jellyfish prefer warmer water and the waters are becoming warmer farther north, and warm currents are coming closer to Japan’s coast line. Pinning the problem on global warming is not simple, exactly, but it’s not irrelevant.

Meanwhile, here in the chilly Northeast, joking that we could use some global warming is not unheard of. Sure, it’s not impossible that we could become the new sunbelt. Of course before then we’ll lose any tourism based on leaf-peeping or skiing and have to start importing maple syrup from Canada.

I know, compared to drowning cities, massive species die-offs, the end of agriculture in the Midwest, and the spread of tropical diseases north—not to mention global water wars—the loss of leaf peeping and maple syrup seem awfully provincial and superficial things to worry about (especially if maple syrup still exists somewhere).

But I think that feeling of the known world changing subtly but persistently and permanently to something new and strange is going to end up hitting us as hard as the fear of disasters, at least until one of the disasters hits very close to home. We structure our world around how things are supposed to be—upstate New York is cold and snowy in the winter. Maple sap starts flowing in February. Leaves are pretty in the fall.

We’re at a point where climate change is happening, and the question is only how much, how fast, how long. That means we face the double challenge of trying to make the hard changes that will limit the worst of its long-term effects at the same time as we have to start adapting to the changes that are already happening. After all, denying the realities around us is much of what got us this far in the first place.

People in Japan are learning, slowly, to snack on dried jellyfish and use it as fertilizer. If hickory trees are going to drive the sugar maples north, it may not be too soon for us to cultivate a taste for hickory nuts.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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