Sunday, March 5, 2017

Old- or New-Fashioned Winter?

Climate change is really a metaphor for global warming in today’s conversation. The warming of our planet is perceived by many citizens as undesirable. Many less informed citizens think any departure from the climatic status quo is a source of worry. More specifically, since the last three years have produced, by some metrics, a succession of “hottest years on record,” we are heading for calamity, we are cautioned. It is true that in the last several years we have experienced a small “uptick” of temperatures. When a year is described as “the hottest on record” we may be talking about a small fraction of a degree “hotter” than the previous record. We note that the last several years have been warmer than the average temperatures of the previous 100 years. More broadly, the Earth is now about 1ºC warmer than we were in pre-industrial times. In 2016 the planetary temperature was 0.75ºC above the 1960-1990 period average. In about 1850 Earth entered a slight warming trend, ending what was termed the “Little Ice Age” of the previous five centuries. Alpine glaciers gradually began to melt and continue to melt to this day.

Early US industries and transportation strategies used hardly any CO2-producing fossil fuels. Average temperature change relates to many other causative factors. Today’s average temperature rise, occurring together with a 50% increase in CO2 atmospheric concentration from pre-industrial days, is of uncertain importance. It is, however, a factor in increased and healthier plant growth. Slightly warmer temperatures may benefit human habitation in other ways. Atmospheric CO2 levels and Earth temperatures have been somewhat elevated in the last century, but societal and political anxiety have been elevated exponentially in the last few decades. 

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that in a group of 13 countries analyzed in 2015, of 74 million deaths, 7.3% of the deaths were attributed to cold; 0.4% were attributed to heat. Cold weather caused 18 times as many deaths as hot weather.

Before the recent succession of the three “record hottest years” was announced beginning in 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Temperatures have been flat for 15 years—nobody can properly explain it.” BBC News claims the average temperature rise between 1951-2012 was 0.12ºC per decade. But in the years 1998-2012 the average temperature rise was only 0.05ºC per decade. We hasten to remind readers that the three “record hottest years” from 2014-2016 experienced temperature rises of small fractions of a degree “hotter” than the previous years—hardly a cause for concern. Do we remember how many times we have read or heard from the alarmist media that global warming was causing Earth’s temperatures to advance during those “Earth’s hottest years?” This is circular argument. Of course we understand the earth is warming. It is important to explain why and how much the earth is warming.

We take the liberty to cite an interesting pair of weather phenomena we experienced in Northwest Illinois during the winter of 2013-2014 compared with the current year 2016-17. On March 7, 2014 we posted:

The first paragraph of this post is reprinted here in entirety: “Relentless cold describes the winter of 2013-2014 in the central and eastern United States. Accompanying the cold have come frequent snows. In our region this winter has gifted us with over two dozen snowfalls and 43 daily below zero readings so far. Snowfall approaches highest seasonal totals in our area since climate records commenced in 1850. Statistics for record lows and record “low highs” in February augment the recent record low high for March which surpassed the low high for any day in March in meteorological history by three degrees.”

Fast forward to the winter of 2016-17. The February 23 Dubuque Telegraph-Herald had an article headlined, “Record-setting heat—in February.” Its lead paragraph reported, “Dubuque’s high temperature rose to 71 degrees Wednesday afternoon, making it the warmest February day in the city’s recorded history.” Dubuque Accuweather published the high temperatures in the six-day February spell of warmth “for the ages:” 65º-64º-64º-59º-61º-71º—an average of 64º for the six day period Feb. 17-22, 2017. It was a heavy dose of spring during a traditionally cold winter month.

Was the winter of 2016-17 an old-fashioned or a new-fashioned winter? I argue the question is moot. As a life-long weather-fascinated observer, I understand that weather and climate are intricately complex but immensely fascinating. Our planetary weather is a gift of our Creator. His created climate system provides a place to thrive for a population of over seven billion people early in the 21st century. This population figure is up from one billion at the start of the 19th century. In my personal memory I recall many extremes of weather from unseasonable cold to unseasonable warmth and many events beyond those parameters. There were many stretches of unseasonable cold during warm seasons and unseasonable warmth during cold seasons. We acknowledge the beauty and benefit of usual, unusual, and even occasionally severe meteorological events. Ultimately they contribute to Earth as “a place to thrive.”

Unusual weather phenomena inspire us to make an investigation of cause and effect. Has CO2 concentration increased and has climate change occurred? If the answer to both questions is “Yes,” does this support the fallacy of “After this, therefore because of this?” If we identify multiple causes we are obligated to study carefully the effects of those multiple causes. There are many causes for the Earth’s climate change and many causes for unusual weather events. Atmospheric CO2 is a relatively minor player when multiple causes are investigated. Important climate oscillations are recognized and studied today such as cyclical atmospheric or oceanic temperature or pressure fluctuations. Some oscillations are short; some are long. Short term oscillations such as El Nino, La Nina, and others are definitely related to the brutal winter of 2013-14 and the surreal 2016-17 February warm spell described above. These fascinating phenomena are more aptly explained as unusual short term weather events occurring within the usual, long term and ever-present climate change.