Last month we set a record for the highest dew point ever recorded at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Chicago recorded the very same thing. Yesterday, the news came that there is more land in the United States in extreme drought than in the history of the country. And it has been wet, too. In Alexandria, for instance, folks can’t raise their docks any higher, so many people are simply pulling them out. Of course, Australia and Pakistan have seen more rain in the last five months than they’ve seen in their history. The Horn of Africa is in a drought worse than the one currently hammering Texas.
Is this just weather? Or, is it climate?
The reason I ask is to turn the question on its head. I hear from a lot of global warming skeptics and deniers. I listen to a lot of conservative radio, and I often hear riffs on the same melody. I usually hear it in the when the weather is cool or when Atlanta or Washington, D.C., see snowfall. Those local events rarely produce a statistical blip on the summary of the continued warming of our whole planet, but the deniers say, “Where is your global warming, now?”
Over the past two or three decades, the scientists have been careful in pointing out that “single weather events can’t be attributed to global warming.” It is, after all, climate change we are talking about and not weather change. To be clear, the scientists have repeated that line whether people were asking about hot, cold, wet or dry weather.
But even scientists are beginning to change their minds about what we are witnessing through our windows. These extreme events, taken together, may be a sign of things to come. The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri, has said, “…climate change and its impacts are not off in the future, but are here and now.”
There are two ways to explain what is happening. One is scientific and the other is political. You are familiar with the political arguments, but let me cite one of the most recent. A couple of weeks ago, during the most intense part of this year’s summer heat wave that settled across the upper United States, TV weather people, newspaper writers and internet reporters were telling folks what the air temperature would actually feel like. They were reporting the “heat index.” It was a formula developed in 1978 that combines relative humidity with the temperature at any given place and point in time, and the result is what the inventor called the “humiture.” The National Weather Service adopted the heat index a year later. It isn’t much different than our much beloved wind-chill factor — the combining of temperature and wind to create a new temperature that tells us how cold it will “feel.”
During this last heat wave, Rush Limbaugh began to meltdown a little on his radio show. He saw the reporting of the heat index, a number usually higher than the actual temperature, as a piece of government propaganda designed to convince people that it was hotter than it actually was. You can find the always entertaining Limbaugh rant below.
I am much obliged to Dr. Joseph Romm at Climate Progress for pointing out that Limbaugh told listeners that the government was “playing games with us on this heat wave, again.”
Thank goodness we have Rush Limbaugh to give us a coolheaded response to killing heat.
On the other side of the ledger is science, and some of its best practitioners are doing the heavy lifting required to establish or refute any links between today’s very odd weather systems and rising global temperatures due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere. If you are interested in getting an up close look at that work, you can visit a three-part series produced for Scientific American by John Carey here, here and here.
Dr. Kevin Trenberth is head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the lead author of the 2001 and 2007 IPCC Scientific Assessment. He spends a lot of his time trying to tease out what weather events are naturally occurring and part of the planet’s normal background noise, and what events are exacerbated by global warming.
Trenberth says that the extreme drying like those happening in Texas and the Horn of Africa happens from time to time. But the intensity and duration of these naturally occurring events is made worse by global warming. “Higher air temperatures, essentially, suck the moisture out of the soil. Warmer air can hold more moisture. This further dries out the soil, but moistens the atmosphere…the result is longer lasting and more intense droughts.”
Heavy rain falls, flooding and monsoons in India and China are seen by a growing segment of the climate science community as examples of the same problem. All the moisture being sucked up out of the earth and oceans ends up circulating around the planet, and what goes up, must come down. Eventually the moisture drops out of the atmosphere as rain, sleet and snow. More and more these days, it is coming down in greater amounts, and because Mother Nature is sometimes fickle, it comes down exactly where it isn’t needed.
Paul Douglas explains
Americans get their scientific information (and this is no joke) primarily from television weather casters. Most TV weather folks aren’t prepared to talk about long-range climate realities as they focus their attention on the five-day outlook. An exception is Paul Douglas, formerly of KARE-TV and WCCO-TV, he is now the head of WeatherNation. He says: “One instrument playing out of tune would be noise and insignificant. We have an entire global orchestra playing out of tune with all these weather extremes happening simultaneously. At some point you have to recognize that this is not your grandfather’s weather system. I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before.”
Then he adds, “Just last month, in July, we had 2,676 records broken. The most ever. The hottest in Washington, D.C., since 1871. There is more moisture in the atmosphere than we’ve ever seen before.”
I asked Paul what more moisture means to our weather. “It means a greater potential for extreme events. One study showed that extreme precipitation events increased 24 percent in the United States between 1948 and 2006. That’s snow, as well as rain.”
Then, I ask, why aren’t TV meteorologists telling folks these facts? Douglas says: “My colleagues in the weather forecasting business are skeptics when it comes to climate models. We have been burned so many times on the short-term weather models that they find it hard to accept climate models that stretch out 30 years. What they don’t understand is that they are two entirely different sciences.”
Douglas: “Thirty years ago, the climate scientists told us what to expect with global warming. We are seeing it now.”
Limbaugh: “They [the government] are playing games with us.”
For years I’ve been telling people to avoid making assumptions about global warming by simply looking out one’s window. It was good advice back then. It is not anymore.