Weather and climate, again

There’s no doubt about it, the weather has been weird lately. But how it fits into the science of climate change evidently depends a great deal on where one stands on the issue (as well as where one is standing geographically).

Think Progress blogger Brad Johnson jumped the gun a bit by declaring the tornadoes that hit the southeast on New Year’s Eve to be a “climate disaster.” In reality, December tornadoes in the South have long been nearly an annual occurrence. The map below, generated at the Tornado History Project site, shows December tornadoes in the U.S. since 1950, based on data from NOAA:

Likewise, the Twitterverse today is chock-full of snarky comments from science skeptics who have declared decades of climate research moot now that it’s snowing in Las Vegas. Here’s an example from race car driver and facial-hair enthusiast Paul Tracy:

Snow is indeed rare in Las Vegas, but not unheard of. A brief search turns up two news articles listing measurable snowfalls in Vegas in (at least) 1947, 1949, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1979, 1998, 2003, and 2008. In 1979, the city was crippled by both a 7-inch snowfall and the unbearably dry wit of Gabe Kaplan.

As scientists frequently point out, climate is not something you can measure by standing outside and sticking your finger in the air. But let’s not kid ourselves. The weather is changing. Storms are getting more intense, and patterns in temperature and precipitation are shifting.

The challenge of bringing those changes home is highlighted in this story from the Minneapolis Star Tribune today. On a day when temperatures in the Twin Cities are barely expected to break 15 degrees, one might be tempted to scoff at a report that Minnesota’s new climate normal will be warmer and wetter than it has been in the past.

“It’s going to be tricky from an education standpoint,” said University of Minnesota Extension climatologist Mark Seeley. “We have to keep the public aware that across our lifetime we’re seeing trends that are even more significant than we can see from a 30-year context.”

On one hand, weather is the one constant that affects everyone, and it’s through the weather that most of us will directly experience the impact of climate change. But it’s also still perilous to point to isolated weather events as evidence for, or against, climate science.

Comments are closed.