Most of the U.S. has just gone through a brutal cold snap, with temperatures hovering around zero and wind chills bad enough to conjure visions of the penal colony of Rurapenthe. Out on the Plains, the winds howl; in the Snowbelt, the white stuff piles up; across the South, ice slicks the streets and weighs down the tree limbs. Even the folks in sunny Texas and Florida are shivering. Where the heck is global warming when you need it?
Well, say the folks whose job it is to monitor such things, despite the evidence on your windshield and inside your parka, the planet is warmer than ever. In fact, this little breath of fresh air we’ve been experiencing is just a blip on the ole weather radar, the first one we’ve had in years. We humans just have incredibly short memories.
Take a look at the facts. It had been 17 years since the average daily national temperature in the lower 48 states of the U.S. had dipped as low as the 17.9 degrees Fahrenheit it reached on January 6. That’s the longest stretch of warm weather recorded in the database of daytime winter temps begun in 1900, according to Greg Carbin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Corbin points out that there have been 58 days in the last 115 years when the national average temperature dropped below 18 degrees, events that happen most often in cold snaps like the one we just experienced. There were a dozen such cold snaps between 1970 and 1989. In the 1990’s, there were only two. Since 1997, it was as warm as bath water (well, relatively) until Monday. Feeling warmer yet?
Okay, let’s try extremes, as judged by the lowest average national temperature in the Lower 48. This cold snap doesn’t even come close. At 17.9 degrees, it comes in at the 55th coldest average. The coldest day on record since 1900, at 12 degrees, goes to Christmas Eve, 1983, though it must be said both figures were calculated by computer models. (Not sure why that is, when we have the actual data. Maybe the scientists among my readership could explain it to me.)
Here in Virginia, we are well aware of why it feels so cold when it really is not that cold, historically. It’s because today it may be 15 degrees, but tomorrow it will be 50. You just can’t get used to anything. And you never know how to dress for the day. In Maine or Minnesota, you know to get out your woolies in October and keep them on until May. Hats, coats, scarves, gloves, boots, all are right by the door, armor ready to be donned to brave the weather. Here, every day, decisions must be made. Turtleneck or blouse? Sweater—light or heavy? Boots or shoes? Light jacket or heavy parka or raincoat? Jeez! Is it any wonder we keep a sniffle all winter?
The climatologists, however, are not confused. Global warming is real, no matter what the thermometer happens to say at the moment. According to Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein (in his article “Are Americans Weather Wimps?”), nine out of 11 scientists who reviewed the data for the AP agreed that the global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is causing our winters to become milder, with fewer cold extremes and more warm extremes.
Some folks just don’t remember how bad it used to be. Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler told Borenstein in an email: “I think that people’s memory about climate is really terrible. So I think this cold event feels more extreme than it actually is because we’re just not used to really cold winters anymore.”
That should make you feel better as you shiver on the lawn, begging your pooch to “just find a spot, will you?” or trudge through hip-deep drifts of snow to feed the horses or wait on the corner, woefully underdressed, for the freakin’ bus to “get here already!” The one thing we can be assured of is that in a few months, we’ll be lifting our eyes to the skies and cursing the broiling sun.
Thanks, Laurie, for your tips on setting goals. And, Pippa, it’s easy to see how you generate such enormous output with the word goals you set. I have to admit I’ve had to take a Zen approach to life throughout 2013, given the challenges of that year. But I’m hoping things settle down a bit in 2014, allowing me to see a path out of this valley toward the mountain I can glimpse in the distance.