Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Variability

It’s only a few days before Christmas, and I’m finding it a little depressing.  It’s been raining for days, the river near our house is swollen and brown, and outside it’s inky black by four in the afternoon.  It shouldn’t be this way.  It feels unnatural. 

What’s missing is the snow.  Big fluffy flakes should be falling from the sky, not rain, the river should be almost frozen enough to ski on, and even the long nights should be more luminescent, with white snow covering everything. 

We’ve been suffering unseasonably mild weather the past month, with temperatures hovering just a few degrees above freezing, way too warm for snow.  This time last year, our yard was covered in 60 centimeters (two feet) of the white stuff, though admittedly that winter was the snowiest we’ve had in years.  As it is now, we’re well on our way to a non-white Christmas, only the second or third time that’s happened in the twenty-five years or so I’ve lived here.  The last time was in 2007. 

I’ve heard it’s been unusually warm in some parts of the States as well, despite a freakily early winter storm that hit the Northeast in late October.  Georgia saw highs of about 20 (68 F) last week, prompting one of my Facebook friends to comment that if this was global warming, he was all for it. 

Of course, as with almost everything else these days, “the weather” has become politicized.  My wife, who is a scientist, was recently in a meeting where an agricultural researcher from Kentucky told her how political correctness has forced American universities to change the way they talk about climate change. 

Already some years ago, the term “global warming”, which is in fact a correct description of what is happening to the Earth’s climate, fell out of favor.  This was because “global warming” made it too easy for skeptics to ridicule the idea whenever some part of the world experienced weather that was much colder than normal.  The term “climate change” seemed more acceptable.  But, as the man from Kentucky told my wife, today even “climate change” is not politically neutral enough for the skeptics.  Now the current PC term is climate variability.  It’s like trying to avoid using the word “war” by instead saying “peace variability”. 

When the big storm hit in October, conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted something to the effect that major snowstorms at Halloween are not exactly making a strong case for “global warming”.  Being from Georgia, he should know better. 

This past summer, Georgia experienced extreme drought conditions across most of the state.  Temperatures in Atlanta were over two degrees (4 F) above average.  Rainfall for the year has been about 25% below normal, with Atlanta even now having a rainfall deficit of about 12 inches (30 cm).  Water levels in rivers and lakes are significantly down.  Lake Lanier (the state’s biggest reservoir and a major source of water for Atlanta) is currently eleven feet (over three meters) below the “full” level.  The “good” news is that even as low as Lanier has dropped this year, it is still not as bad as during Georgia’s last severe drought, in 2007, the same year we in Finland celebrated Christmas without snow. 

While Erick Erickson was quick to crow about how (in his mind) an unseasonal winter storm helps to disprove global warming, I suspect he didn’t come to the opposite conclusion during the long summer of abnormally hot and dry weather.  Nor should he.

One bad early winter storm or even a whole summer of drought can simply be outliers to the overall trend in the weather.  They are just single data points.  What’s important is the overall trend, based on a lot of such data points, lots of observations over time.  I tend to trust the scientists who have looked at all the data and found the long-range trend clearly pointing to a warmer planet.  But the data point that concerns me the most at the moment is the fact that, once again, there’ll be no snow at Christmas.  

Helsinki's Senate Square, as it should look this time of the year.  Photo by Jonik

1 comment:

  1. Global warming sucks, despite what your ***** Facebook pal says. It's just going to get worse. Clueless dinks the world over will just continue to live their lives and ignore the ecological disaster taking place around them. Oh, well. The sooner we're all gone, the sooner Mother Nature can begin the process of recovery.

    I remember the first time I heard anyone mention that things were out of whack, when it came to the weather. I was in high school in Gilmer County. Tenth grade, as I recall. Basically, we weren't having a winter. In late November when it should have been at least chilly, if not cold, it was quite frankly sweltering. I remember having to shed a long-sleeved shirt I wore to school because it was so damnably hot. And the teachers were all complaining about the "unnatural" heat.

    Every year since then, it has gotten worse. It will continue to get worse. As long as energy corporations call the shots, drill the oil, pump out the gas, carve out the coal, we will all watch as our Earth is ruined. We have only ourselves to blame for not killing off those board-room monsters when we had the chance.