Punxsutawney Phil may have forecast six more weeks of winter, but for much of the country winter has not yet arrived. Once again, weird weather is dominating the headlines. Temperatures have recently hit highs of 63F in New York City and 72F in Washington, D.C., where cherry blossoms are already flowering.
The National Climatic Data Center released its January data yesterday for the United States and the summary was not surprising to anyone who has enjoyed the warmer weather. January was 5.5F higher than the long-term average and the fourth warmest January on record. Twenty-two states experienced temperatures over the past two months that were among their ten warmest on record. And, amazingly, none of the states reported temperatures that were lower than average.
Source: National Climate Data Center
While many have been glad to keep their winter jackets in the closet, everyone from skiers to birders to farmers may be wondering about the larger changes this warming causes to our ecosystems.
The weather in 2012, in other words, is starting off right where 2011 ended, with a rollercoaster of extremes. What explains these trends?
Scientific models have projected that a warming atmosphere will bring warmer and more frequent hot days over most land areas. The warmer temperatures we have seen recently in the U.S. are indeed consistent with what models project in a changing climate. To be sure, this doesn’t mean that there will be no more winters nor cold spells. While we will experience fewer cold days on average in a changing climate, this is just an average and will not apply to every area or month. Additionally, the warming signal exists on top of natural variability, which can bring significant variation in winter weather.
But the recently released IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) finds it is virtually certain that the frequency and magnitude of extreme high temperatures will increase, with warm spells, including heat waves, very likely increasing in length, frequency, and/or intensity over most land areas.
What is clear is that climate change is already altering our planet and many of today’s impacts are harbingers of things to come. As a group of more than 30 leading climate scientists recently wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal: “The world is heating up and humans are primarily responsible. Impacts are already apparent and will increase. Reducing future impacts will require significant reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases.”
We need leaders to step up and move ahead with increased urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put in place measures to adapt to our changing climate.
While cherry blossoms in February are nice to look at, they are a clear signal that we are continuing to alter Mother Nature and pushing our global community toward a more uncertain future.