90 Degrees in Winter: This Is What Climate Change Looks Like
A view of the Runge reservoir in the town of Runge, some thirty-seven miles north of Santiago on February 3, 2012. Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
The National Weather Service is kind of the anti–Mike Daisey, a just-the-facts operation that grinds on hour after hour, day after day. It’s collected billions of records (I’ve seen the vast vaults where early handwritten weather reports from observers across the country are stored in endless rows of ledgers and files) on countless rainstorms, blizzards and pleasant summer days. So the odds that you could shock the NWS are pretty slim.
Beginning in mid-March, however, its various offices began issuing bulletins that sounded slightly shaken. “There’s extremes in weather, but seeing something like this is impressive and unprecedented,” Chicago NWS meteorologist Richard Castro told the Daily Herald. “It’s extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year long periods of records to break records day after day after day,” the office added in an official statement.
It wasn’t just Chicago, of course. A huge swath of the nation simmered under bizarre heat. International Falls, Minnesota, the “icebox of the nation,” broke its old temperature records—by twenty-two degrees, which according to weather historians may be the largest margin ever for any station with a century’s worth of records. Winner, South Dakota, reached 94 degrees on the second-to-last day of winter. That’s in the Dakotas, two days before the close of winter. Jeff Masters, founder of WeatherUnderground, the web’s go-to site for meteorological information, watched an eerie early morning outside his Michigan home and wrote, “This is not the atmosphere I grew up with,” a fact confirmed later that day when the state recorded the earliest F-3 strength tornado in its history. Other weathermen were more… weathermanish. Veteran Minneapolis broadcaster Paul Douglas, after noting that Sunday’s low temperature in Rochester broke the previous record high, blogged “this is OFF THE SCALE WEIRD even for Minnesota.”
It’s hard to overstate how impossible this weather is—when you have nearly a century and a half of records, they should be hard to break, much less smash. But this is like Barry Bonds on steroids if his steroids were on steroids, an early season outbreak of heat completely without precedent in its scale and spread. I live in Vermont, where we should be starting to slowly thaw out—but as the heat moved steadily east, ski areas shut down and golf courses opened.
And truth be told, it felt pretty good. Most people caught in the torrid zones probably reacted pretty much like President Obama: “It gets you a little nervous about what is happening to global temperatures,” he told the audience assembled at a fundraiser at Tyler Perry’s Atlanta mansion (records were falling in Georgia too). “On the other hand I have really enjoyed the nice weather.”
Anyone thinking about the seasons ahead was at least as ambivalent, and most were scared. Here are a few of the things that could happen with staggering warmth like this early in the year:
The plants that have budded out prematurely (there’s fruit budding across the nation’s Apple Belt) can be easily killed by the freezes that will come if temperatures revert to anything like normal. (Frost is common here, for instance, late into May).
The soils left exposed by the early retreat of snow will dry out much earlier in the growing season, raising dramatically the risk of drought.
Forests dry out too. In recent years three-quarters of the big fires across the West have come in years when snow melted well ahead of schedule. Across the East the next six or eight weeks, before trees are fully leafed out, will be scary for forest rangers unless we get heavy rains.
One could go on: mild winters and early springs allow ticks to spread into new places, carrying disease. Reservoirs can start evaporating early. We see wickedly strong storms along the frontal boundaries of these record-setting zones. But the real fears are the things we can’t anticipate, simply because we are moving into uncharted territory. We know that we can make a normal seasonal cycle, with variations within a typical range, work—we know, because we’ve done it as long as we’ve been here. But we’ve never seen anything like what we’re seeing this week.
Except, of course, in the models that the climatologists have been printing out on their supercomputers for the last two decades. This is what climate change looks like, just like last year’s new record for multibillion-dollar weather disasters is what climate change looks like. As Masters put it in a recent blog post, notable for its understatement, “it is very unlikely that the intensity of the heat would have been so great unless we were in a warming climate.”
One could make some sad jokes about the coincidence of Chicago’s record heat with the Illinois primary, or with the president’s tour this week of drilling rigs to convince Americans that he’s a great champion of fossil fuel (with a visit to a solar production facility thrown in for good measure). But the power of our politics seems puny this week compared to the power of the carbon we’ve unleashed for a century.
Still, one’s compelled to make a witness and put up a fight. On May 5, all around the world, 350.org is organizing a day for people to testify to the impacts of climate change. There will be Pakistanis forced from their homes in the worst flooding the country’s ever seen, and Somalians dealing with a drought horrible even by the standards of the Horn of Africa. Thais, who watched floods do damage last fall equal to 18 percent of the country’s GDP, and El Salvadorans who watched fifteen years’ worth of development wash away in a week of record rains. Lots of Americans were already planning to join in—Texans who watched drought kill half a billion trees there last year, Vermonters who saw the state dam near wash away in the wake of Irene. But now they’ll have more company.