Tuesday, March 10, 2015

With All This Cold, What About Global Warming?

Global Mean Tempertures RiseI had such high hopes for global warming, but when the first week in March was just as cold as February, I felt disappointed. Betrayed, even. I thought the planet was heating up. All my plans for a northern NY citrus and banana orchard, out the window.

Turns out it’s easy to mix up climate and weather, two very different things. There’s a saying in the Adirondacks (and elsewhere, I’m sure) that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. That’s weather: what we experience in a given day, week, season or year.

Climate, on the other hand, refers to long-term trends in weather patterns over decades and centuries. When you have a hundred years of weather records in hand (which we do, and then some) you can begin to look for patterns in climate.

Climate patterns over time can be like riding a bicycle from Long Lake, elevation 1,900 feet, to the Hudson River at Albany, just about at sea level. Even if you’re not in shape it’s no sweat because the trip is all downhill, right? You should be able to coast the whole way. Actually you do want to be in good condition for that trek. While the general trend is downhill, there are many steep uphill climbs along the way as well. Or consider average life expectancy in the US. We know it has steadily risen for the past couple centuries, and is now roughly 79 years. Yet we all know people who, sadly, have died at a much younger age. While unfortunate, this doesn’t reflect the long-term trend.

Long-term climate trends going back thousands of years can be gleaned from air trapped in ice cores and pollen trapped in lake sediment cores. Of course you have to take scientists’ word on that sort of thing, and rumor has it some of them favor progressive politics.

It’s unlikely that thermometers have a secret political agenda, though, and reliable temperature records date back to about 1850. The consensus of these impartial instruments is that the average temperature of our planet has definitely risen over the last century.

The term ‘global’ can make climate change seem distant. Climate researcher Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College points out a number of effects close to home. For example, local records document that our region is about two degrees warmer than it was just fifty years ago.

Lake Champlain ice data, which reach back more than 200 years, indicate in the 19th century there were only three years in which the lake didn’t freeze over. But in the 20th century the lake failed to freeze in twenty-eight winters, mostly since 1950.

This warming has wrought other changes. We now get three more inches of precipitation per year than in 1970, resulting in water level rises in lakes and ponds whose outflows are not artificially controlled. Lake Champlain has risen a whole foot in the past forty-five years.

Many people are asking where all the heat is this winter, a fair question. The coldest air in the northern hemisphere is usually found—no surprise—near the North Pole. Dubbed a “polar vortex” in the 1950s, a large Frisbee of frigid air normally hovers over the Arctic quite reliably. On occasion this bitter cold beanie gets whacked by the jet stream and slips down the face of the planet, bringing the Arctic to us.

While we’re colder than usual, many places have been hotter. In late February, most of Alaska was between fifteen and thirty-six degrees above normal. Ditto for a big splash of northeastern Russia, and another chunk in the Russian northwest. All of the Arctic has been at least five, and as much as fifteen, degrees above normal. Planet-wide, it still averages out to a warming trend. Unfortunately the math hasn’t been in our favor lately.

It’s not that our winter has been cold—it’s just that somebody else had ours, and we experienced theirs. Anyone want to help me invest in a pineapple plantation in Anchorage?

Illustration: Global mean land-ocean temperature change from 1880 to 2014, relative to the 1951–1980 mean. The black line is the annual mean and the red line is the 5-year running mean. The green bars show uncertainty estimates. Source: NASA GISS

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

26 Responses

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    Paul mentions the warmer than average weather in Alaska and Russia, but other areas of the Northern Hemisphere were also unusually warm. Watching nordic and alpine ski events from Europe and the Western US via live streaming I saw many ski competition venues in Europe where the only snow was on the competition courses, and the fans didn’t exactly look all that bundled up. The World Alpine Championships in Vail saw some sitting in the bleachers in tank tops and t-shirts. The World Nordic Championships in Falun, Sweden also had much warmer temperatures than one would expect in a city at 60-degrees north latitude (about the same as Anchorage, AK or the northern tip of Labrador) in February. To make the races as fair as possible, the courses were salted to try and keep them firm. Meanwhile, enjoy this second winter of good skiing. It could be a few years before we see such conditions again.

    • Paul says:

      I follow skiing online also. It is too bad that there isn’t more support for skiing here in the US. We certainly could have had some great WC races here at Whiteface or Van Hoevenberg this winter!

      We have some of the best skiers and some of the best mountains and reliable snow conditions in the world but Europe gets all the fun. And like you say this year (like the past few years) the conditions have been spotty at best over there.

      It was pretty warm for the races at Vail but the conditions were still perfect. Early season snow was very good.

  2. Marco says:

    Weather and climate are different but I do not believe that is the only reason. Heat is energy. What will this mean for the next 50 years?

    For weather, adding extra energy to whatever storms are out there means they move faster (and further) Storms that typically stopped in Canada now plunge deeply into the US. They move faster and further with more energy. For us on the border of hot & cold, we get as many storms (often governed by planet rotation, geography and latitude,) but storms with more energy. Rather than an inch of a dusting of snow with a 20mph wind, we get 40mph winds and 3″ of snow (more heat means more moisture can be evaporated in the air.) We get wider fluctuations as you pointed out. One year will be a nearly open winter, the next year we get a 4′ blanket of snow. A simple rain shower becomes a thunder storm. When it gets hot we get near tropical conditions with rain every afternoon when we used to get simple clouds. First Irene, then a couple years later, Sandy. Two “Hundred Year” storms in a few years. And so on.

    I do not believe we get more weather, the potential for these was found in a Rain Front 20mph front moving through, for example. But that front is now a thunder storm with tornadic potential. No, climate change simply exacerbates the conditions that give us weather. A matter of “degree.”

    These are facets on the same gem.

  3. Mike says:

    Get ready for the deniers/skeptics with their research funded by the fossil fuel industry

    • jay says:

      Climate does refer to a long term of thousands of years and we do not have the records of thousands of years to prove any climate change now or in the future.Come back in 10,000 years and we can talk climate change if any.

    • Outlier says:

      Two can play this game. If research showed that there was no threat from Global Warming or that it was not due to fossil fuels, do you think scientists would continue to receive government grants for studying the issue? Climate scientists have to compete with other science priorities to get funding. One prominent climate scientist has admitted that advocates have to play emphasize the dangers and downplay the doubts in order to get the message across.

      If the research is scientifically sound, makes its data and methods open to inspection and is reproducible, it does not matter who or what funds the research.

      Note that “peer review” is a minimum threshold for publication of results. It is not confirmation that the results are valid.

  4. Joseph says:

    I am not a person who has a degree in weather, but I can read , and understand. From what I have gathered , so far .. is our sun goes through cycles, and some times it has a ton of sun spots and other times like the the 1800’s there were hardly any, like now.. So me being a researcher , I looked to what the weather was like when something like this happens. With our sun. Cooling trends are what we see for our area where we live in the NE. But I was hoping for orange croves with warming temps , so much for that

  5. They can no longer use the too-clever term “skeptics”; they’re “deniers”.

  6. Paul Hetzler says:

    Jay, I think that skepticism is healthy, and I’m glad you voiced your thoughts.

    i apologize that my line “Long-term climate trends going back thousands of years can be gleaned from air trapped in ice cores and pollen trapped in lake sediment cores.” was unintentionally misleading.

    In fact, climate data gathered from ice cores go back hundreds of thousands of years. In 2013, for example, an ice core dating back 1.5 million years was pulled in Antarctica (See Science Daily, 11/5/13). Air trapped in ice is analyzed for greenhouse gas composition, giving us records that do indeed go back 10,000 years, and then some.

    Keep “questioning authority.” it’s all too easy for me to accept a particular statement at face value just because I agree with the view it supports, and it’s good to examine it critically.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    Not questioning global warming or climate change but the problem here is the arguments used against those who question anything said against either idea.
    When it is colder or snowier than average, this is dismissed as just being weather. If it is warmer than average, this is pointed to as an example of global warming and climate change. In other words, whatever the weather is, it is proof of global warming and climate change.
    Personally, I’m hoping the next ice age comes soon. I hate warm weather.
    Based upon the weather of this year’s winter and last year’s winter, I have some hope my dream will come true but not because of the weather.
    Here is the thing. The last ice age began in the area of Hudson Bay and northern Quebec. While the ice age progressed and grew in that region and expanded down into what is now the USA, it left much of the west alone and this was true for most of Alaska. How could this be?
    I don’t know but I would not be surprised if what happened was the same thing that has happened during the past two winters. Namely, the jet stream got stuck, funneling warm air up to Alaska and then plunging down through the Hudson Bay and northern Quebec area, bringing the cold air from the arctic with it.
    If the jet stream were to get stuck in this pattern for thousands of years, odds are we would see another ice age.
    Now here is the good news. An ice age would wreck modern civilization and put an end to all the pollution we create and drastically reduce the human population which would also solve many of the environmental problems we have created.

  8. Paul Hetzler says:

    Pete, you’re right that many people are quick to blame heat waves on global warming but will chalk up a cold spell to “weather.” Others point to our cold winter as proof there is no global warming. Both are equally bad science.

    It’s important to remember that the average temperature of the entire planet is rising. (Some seem to forget the terms “average” and “entire.”) During the last (and every) Ice Age, the entire planet cooled down–all of Earth was colder. What you’re talking about is glaciation, which did not impact all areas, as you correctly point out.

    No matter how whacky the jet stream gets, it’s impossible for Earth to have another Ice Age when the planet’s average temperature is rising.

    But I share your sentiment about sometimes wishing we could start over as a civilization…

  9. Alfred Hitchcock says:

    The reason why leftist changed the “crisis” from “global warming ” to “climate change” is because the data does NOT support the theory. For example ,In NY this past winter it has been one of the coldest winters in 50 years as in other regions. lots of snow. This has been going on for he past 2-3 years so yes the money grabbers and leftist suddenly changed the “crisis” name to—- “Climate Change” . This way hot , cold , warm, cool, rainy , snowy , etc etc they got it ALL covered !!!
    It’s a hoax , a fraud and a money grab by leftists, career students and phony environmentalists.

    • JohnL says:

      “It’s a hoax, a fraud and a money grab by leftists, career students and phony environmentalists.”
      Amen. Well said Alfred.

  10. Ray Smith says:

    A theory popular among meteorologists is that the jet stream, moving west to east, is stabilized by the temperature differential between northern latitudes and temperate areas farther south. Global warming has been much greater at the poles than elsewhere, with the result that this temperature differential has decreased, causing the jet stream to become somewhat destabilized. Thus, we have the jet stream moving northward on the west coast, warming Alaska, but dipping down over the eastern part of the US, causing these low temperatures.

    So our record-low February temperatures in northern New York really are due to the more general phenomenon of global warming. This is more than just the distinction between “weather” and “climate.”

  11. Paul Hetzler says:

    Hello Alfred–

    You’ll notice that I use the term “global warming.” This is because I want to emphasize that the temperature of the globe–our planet–is what’s being measured.

    The United States only makes up 1.6% of the Earth’s surface. it’s cold here, but there’s the other 98.4% of the planet to consider when calculating a global average temperature. There may be reasons to use another term for it, but I’ll stick with global warming, because that’s what’s happening.

    Also–big fan of your movies.

  12. Charlie S says:

    Pete Klein says “Personally, I’m hoping the next ice age comes soon. I hate warm weather. Based upon the weather of this year’s winter and last year’s winter, I have some hope my dream will come true…”

    You might get your wish Pete. Some reliable speakers I have heard over the past few years have been predicting another ice age is coming and just maybe the warming trend we’ve been experiencing has something to do with it. Maybe this past winter is proving that. I’m like you i’ll take cold and snow over heat any day of the week.

  13. John says:

    Climate change is a fact. We have had ice ages and climate change since the dawn of time. The only car factor under discussion should be man’s effect. Yes we to small extent effect the rate. We are the one factor that we can control the effect of. That said it is very small factor and our ability to control it is small. Bottom line climate change will happen even if we do nothing and if do everything it will still occur at a slightly reduced rate of change.

  14. Chris says:

    Unfortunately, it seems that the most effective way to get people to pay attention to what you’re saying is when they can relate to it from their own experience. For many of us, that is not the case (yet) when it comes to climate change. If climate change is real we are all being at least indirectly/minimally affected, but very few of us have had to make drastic changes to our lifestyle at this time due to the weather. I fully support the research going into this topic and hope we continue to make strides in the findings, as well as engage in proper critiques of the studies conducted.

    Side note: while I understand it’s because trends are easier to predict than individual events, I still can’t help but find it amusing our meteorologists can’t get tomorrow’s weather right, but we have scientists claiming we could wipe our planet out in a hundred years.

  15. JohnL says:

    Help me out here. The climate change/global warming ‘gang’ say their models making predictions going out decades are beyond reproach. Settled science I think is the way they describe it. However, the recent storm in New York City that was predicted by climate/weather ‘models’ to be a catastrophic event didn’t materialize (in NYC). How can the models going out decades be ‘settled’ and the models for the weather tomorrow be so inaccurate. Just curious.
    P.S. The people that believed in a ‘flat earth’ also thought that was ‘settled science’ until somebody noticed that they saw the sails before the ship.

    • John Warren says:

      “The climate change/global warming ‘gang’”

      I think you meant to say “nearly all climate scientists in the world”

      “The people that believed in a ‘flat earth’ also thought that was ‘settled science’”

      Western civilization understood the earth was round beginning about 500 BC.

      • JohnL says:

        Nope. ‘Climate change/global warming gang’ was what I meant to say but thanks for helping me out. And I don’t think I mentioned a date for the flat earthers. Again….thanks.

  16. Paul says:

    The good news on this Friday the 13th is that the IAE is set to announce, that despite a 3% growth is the world economy, global carbon emissions remained flat in 2014. This marks the first time in 40 years that we have seen something like that w/o a global economic crisis. So this is really an historic piece of good news. The data will show that OECD countries despite a 7% growth in their economies had a 4% decrease in global emissions in 2014. Progress is being made. We have a long way to go but this is good it shows we may actually be moving in the right direction despite all the bad news we have been hearing.

  17. Hawthorn says:

    I’m not sure what all this yacking is about with regard to a cold winter. Sure, some records were broken and there was plenty of snow, but when you’re talking about “global warming” you can’t look at one winter in one eensy weensy backwater of the globe. We’re talking about mother ship Earth here. Measure the overall temperature effect over time over the entire globe. It is farcical to think that my snow shoveling refutes global warming. I am perpetually amazed that some believe that what they see outside their own home proves one thing or another about what the Earth is going through. Please read the science before making a fool of yourself.

  18. AG says:

    Well I’m sure (hope) the first paragraph was in jest… In reality though that’s no laughing matter. If the ADK’s get warm enough to have citrus trees and banana plantations – the world we know won’t exist – literally. Anywhere south of Virginia would either be desert or under ocean water… There would also be mass calamity of humanity as disease would spread (the winter helps keep many types of diseases from spreading) – and crops would fail in the majority of the world. Undoubtedly wars would be fought over scarce resources.
    The causes of climate change can be debated…. What is without question is that people HAVE TO change their behaviors to adapt.

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