The Winter That Never Was

Spurred by warmer than usual temps, public concern over global warming rises just as some activists seek to ‘rebrand’ the issue.

If Theodor Geisel (AKA Dr. Suess) were around today, he might be prompted to write a book called, How global warming stole winter. Not that U.S. residents have been complaining about the recent record-breaking warm temperatures. Watch this local news clip from Chicago on March 14, when the thermometer reached 80 degrees. People are gushing over the summer-like weather.

The windy city’s winter heat wave has continued into this week. But as Bill McKibben writes in The Nation:

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.

Episodes like this are problematic for climate communicators and journalists. Stories of record-shattering weather require the obligatory caveat that one scorching week, or even one unusually mild winter (as much of the U.S. has just experienced) does not constitute a pattern. Nonetheless, McKibben, in his article, asserts: “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.”

At the same time, he also acknowledges the double-edged sword of warm winter temperatures. Even those already apprehensive about climate change are likely struggling with some ambivalence, McKibben points out:

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.”

Still, if you’re on the front lines of the climate campaign, you’re also looking for ways to move the needle on public concern. That means you probably welcomed the results of a recent national survey which found that, after several years of declining belief in climate change, “More Americans than ever are pointing to experiences with warmer temperatures as the main reason that they believe global warming is occurring.” And that poll was conducted in December of 2011, before the winter that never was pretty much had ended with a heat wave in what are normally some of the most frigid parts of the U.S.

As the Los Angeles Times notes in its report on the survey, “the nasty winters of 2009 and 2010 “seemed to indicate to a lot of people — rightly or wrongly — that they weren’t feeling any increase of temperatures. That helped drive down belief in climate change. But 2011 was a super-hot year, bad drought, with record-breaking precipitation in the Northeast, lots of weird weather. Public opinion? Must be climate change.”

In truth, as the LA Times story observes, “This shows how fickle public opinion can be.”

Ironically, this latest swing in the pendulum of public attitudes comes just as Beltway activists, according to Politico,  seek to turn the focus away from climate change to “kitchen table issues.” The article discusses upcoming ad campaigns by environmental groups that will emphasize economic and public health concerns. Politico notes: “So melting glaciers are giving way to smog-induced asthma. And fuel-efficiency is now a matter of pump prices, not pollutants.”

All this goes to show: If there’s one constant in the climate sphere, it’s the lurching nature of public opinion on climate change, and the lurching campaigns of those who try to lasso the fickle public on to their side.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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31 Responses to The Winter That Never Was

  1. Humans are warming the planet and the expected warming is going be costly and painful, especially to poorer people in nations that did little to cause the problem. Why are you so averse to communicators trying to find ways to get this message across?

    If a person is sitting inside a burning house yet refuses to understand the predicament he is in, is it not fair to try every possible way to warn that person that he is inside a burning house?

    Records are going down everywhere. They are being shattered and not just broken. As humans warm the planet, we expect this type of weather to occur more frequently. Looking out my window today I am peering into the future. Why are you asking me to close the blinds?

    • Vince says:

      Are you capable of rational thinking, or just emotional, knee-jerk responses? Yes, temps in the U.S. east of the Rockies were very mild this winter. However, these temps aren’t unprecedented – they have occured before and all that you have to do is check the temperature records for individual states and/or cities. In addition, temps in the U.S. west of the Rockies were below average this winter, Alaska was brutally cold this winter, with many low temp records being broken, most of Canada was colder than average, including the West Coast, winter temps in Europe and temperate Asia were below normal as well, and summer temps in Australia were below normal. In fact, despite the above-average temps in the eastern and midwestern U.S., global winter temps for 2011-2012 were slightly lower than those for 2010-2011. Just do some research and you’ll see for yourself that the world is definitely not roasting into oblivion. Calm down and go and enjoy life.

      • When my MET101 does weather forecasting in the lab portion of the course. I always caution them against predicting a record event. I tell them if they predict a record hight T, low T, or precipitation event they are forecasting something that has never happened in the instrumental record.

        Guess how many records have been broken already this year? Last year? The year before? Again, many were crushed and not just barely topped.

        How many do you need to see to understand that this is not normal?

        • allen mcmahon says:

          Its hardly surprising that records are being broken temps have been rising since the LIA, which is well before we had data for comparison. Until we can determine how much is natural and how much relates to human activity we are unable to quantify what is normal and what is not.

        • RickA says:

          Scott:

          Why is it that when it snows in Washington D.C., it is always “weather”, but when it is the fourth warmest winter in the United States it is proof of global warming?

          In Minnesota, the warmest winter on record was in 1887, and CO2 was a lot lower then than it is now – so you should excuse the non-climate scientists who think that unusual weather does not necessarily prove that the undeniable warming we have experienced since 1975 is all caused by humans.

          It may turn out that only 1/4 of it is caused by humans, and the rest is natural – or it may turn out that 3/4 of it is caused by humans and the rest is natural.

          The science isn’t settled on that issue yet.

          If you are right about the temperature trend, then eventually we will have the warmest winter on record, two, three or ten years in a row – and then I bet people will pay more attention to climate science.

  2. Eli Rabett says:

    Oh noes, mustn’t panic wouldn’t be cool.

    The fact is that climate change IS happening

    It is not going to be pleasant and yes, the churnalists have a problem as one of their hands is chopped off.

  3. keith Kloor says:

    Scott,

    On what basis do you make this assertion: “Why are you so averse to communicators
    trying to find ways to get this message across?”

    My post essentially highlights the opportunities and complications of public opinion being swayed by weather, be it an unusually mild winter or a frigid, snowy winter.

  4. Francis Menton says:

    The winter may have been unusually warm in the continental US, but it was unusually cold in places like Europe and Alaska. On net, according to the best available (satellite) data, temperatures for Dec 2011 and Jan/Feb 2012 were actually below the satellite-era average worldwide. Here is a link to a graph of the UAH satellite data set since 1979. http://www.drroyspencer.com/2012/03/uah-global-temperature-update-for-february-2012-0-12-deg-c/

    Lots and lots of people know how to follow this data on the internet on a monthly and even daily basis. If you try to build up the global warming scare by citing unusually warm local temperatures in some particular spot, you only make yourself look ridiculous to those who know anything about the subject. I would question whether it is really possible to “move the needle on public concern” about climate change by citing isolated and unrepresentative data points when all knowledgeable people know that the overall average temperatures are below average and not increasing. Although you don’t mention the worldwide satellite record in your article, you can’t keep people from finding out about it.

  5. harrywr2 says:

    Well….I’m out Seattle way….worst winter in a very long time for us.
    Snow here tends to be a not so frequent occurrence(at least at Sea Level). Snow on the first day of spring is a rare occurrence.

    My wifes German relatives also report a ‘cold winter’.

    • Dean says:

      Our chilly PNW spring start is not remotely as record-setting as the heat to the east of the Rockies. We set a handful of records for individual days. A few towns had the biggest late snow. I think that overall our winter has not been far from normal – it just seems that way because the baseline has changed so much.

      • dhogaza says:

        Just so. The massive heat wave out east is being described as a 4-sigma event, while our cold PNW March is described as a 2-sigma event. Not even close to being as unusual as the massive heat wave.

        And most of this winter was relatively mild in the PNW. Very little freezing weather, no snow really here in Portland. While that’s not unusual, it’s certainly not “the worst winter in a long time” harrywr2 describes.

        C’mon. About three years ago I was able to cross country ski in my SE Portland neighborhood for a week, and Powell Blvd (a 4-lane thoroughfare) had packed snow on it for several days. That winter was far colder than this winter, so unless “a long time” is three (or was it four? I’m forgetfull :) ) years harrywr2′s off-base.

      • dhogaza says:

        To further support my observation that the PNW winter’s not been particularly harsh, from the Accuweather piece linked below:

        December through February, temperatures in Seattle were 1.5 degrees below average. March 1 through March 12, temperatures averaged 4 degrees below normal.

        This is not an exceptional deviation from the norm. Not at all like previous highs being shattered by 40F in parts of the east …

    • John says:

      Maybe this map will help put things into perspective for you:

      http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=77465&src=eoa-iotd

  6. Dean says:

    I think that it’s worth pointing out that this is not just another heat wave. It is the most extreme heat wave recorded in North America – by far – since records were kept. Many cities have beat their all-time highest April temperatures in March. Many also had their daytime low temperature be hotter than the previous high for the day. They didn’t just beat their previous record by 20-some degrees, many did by 40+ degrees.

    Had such a heat wave occurred in the summer, as it did in Russia a couple of years ago, the effects would have been devastating. In fact, the impacts of this heat wave may be significant if the melting and drying makes for summertime fires.

    While it’s true that one heat wave doesn’t make a trend, it isn’t just one heat wave. It is yet another heat wave. If the ending of the recent La Nina is unleashing pent up heating on us, we can only wonder what the rest of the year will be like.

  7. (cynical warning)

    When there are not enough lifeboats on board, one survival strategy is to try to persuade people that there is no problem and no real need to get to them. It is a tactic that reduces crowding and clamoring. However, once they realize the deliberate deceit, it makes them very angry. But by then, you are in the boat.

  8. Fred N. says:

    Seriously guys. Let the real meteorologists explain the weather.
    http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/whats-causing-all-the-warm-wea/63076

    • Dean says:

      Meteorologists can explain the weather, but not the climate.

    • dhogaza says:

      Fred N., at a trivial level the Accuweather article’s perfectly accurate – the AO and NAO combined with la niña have kept arctic air to the north of the eastern US/Canada.

      But … climate vs. weather …

      Doctor says “you’re coughing up bloody sputum because you have lung cancer, not because you’re smoking”.

      Epidemiologist says “smoking causes lung cancer”.

      Skeptic says – correctly, given the state of science today – “you can’t pin a specific instance of lung cancer on smoking, therefore I don’t believe smoking is a sigificant cause of lung cancer” (Lindzen holds this view).

      Epidemiologist says “it doesn’t cause all cases of lung cancer, but it greatly increases the odds you’ll end up with lung cancer”.

      All of the above are true statements, though the conclusion reached by the skeptic is hard to justify.

      Climatologists ask *why* have we been seeing the AO be weird in recent years and are starting to connect the dots with greatly diminished arctic sea ice extent in summer leading to warmer arctic sea ice temps (even the myoptic accuweather piece included one meteorologist conditions in the ocean). Just as once upon a time epidemiologists began to connect the dots between increased smoking and a rise in the number of cases of lung cancer …

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        Medical analogies seem to be very popular in climate science.

        Sceptic says: “Hang on. I don’t smoke.”
        Doctor says: “It must be passive smoke, then. See this study. Smoking causes lung cancer.”
        Sceptic says: “Your study makes biased measurements of exposure, counts all types of lung cancer rather than just those linked to smoking, only sees weak correlations down in the statistical noise, increases a very low probability only slightly, and ignores confounders like poverty.”
        Doctor says: “You must be one of those paid shills for big tobacco. How can you deny that smoking causes lung cancer?”
        Sceptic says: “I’m not denying it. I’m just saying the evidence you’ve presented for passive smoking doesn’t prove it.”
        Doctor says: “We must shut the deniers out of the debate, so governments will move to ban smoking.”
        Sceptic says: “Hang on. That’s their decision, whether the pleasurable benefits of smoking outweigh the cost of a shorter life or not. You’ll make them miserable.”
        Doctor says: “We must. Millions of lives are at stake. Perhaps even the survival of humanity.”
        Sceptic says: “I used to work in a coal mine. Might that have anything to do with it?”
        Doctor says: “The denier theory that coal mining causes lung cancer has been debunked – scientists measured the amount of smoke in coal mines and found it too low to have an effect. Smoking causes lung cancer, not coal mining.”

        And so on.

        The world is full of things we don’t know. People get cancer for all sorts of reasons, and maybe an increase in cancers is because of more smoking, or maybe it is because of the coal mine, or a leak at the new chemical factory, or a genetic mutation increasing susceptibility, or the radioactive radon gas seeping into people’s homes. With careful statistics, you can maybe show some portion of the rise connected with increased exposure to smoke. But against the background of all cancers, or indeed all causes of death, it’s lost in the noise.

        Oh, and your version of Lindzen’s view on smoking isn’t quite right. He said: “I have always noted, having read the literature on the matter, that there was a reasonable case for the role of cigarette smoking in lung cancer, but that the case was not so strong that one should rule that any questions were out of order. I think that the precedent of establishing a complex statistical finding as dogma is a bad one. Among other things, it has led to the much, much weaker case against second hand smoke also being treated as dogma. Similarly, in the case of alleged dangerous anthropogenic warming, the status of dogma is being sought without any verifiable evidence.”

  9. Susan Anderson says:

    Yes indeed, Brett Anderson at AccuWeather is excellent.
    http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-blogs/climatechange/
    This is his latest; read the whole thing for substance rather than mining for something to misconstrue. Joe Bastardi, not so much, and Fred N’s particular link lacks substance.
    http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-blogs/climatechange/update-on-sae-ice-volume/63069

    It does rather seem as if the single weather event and single year caveat is being a bit overworked. Anybody over a certain age or with relatives who’ve been around for a few decades can spot the obvious trend. You need selective vision to lose the context and “no single” is not the same as “all”.

    In the US, Earth Observatory has a nice graphic for heat versus cold. The pattern was predicted, and of course next week we get some relief and a return to more or less normal for a bit.
    http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=77465

  10. Dean says:

    Since we’re talking weather and trends, I think another information piece bears notice. The last time the earth had a calendar month with an overall mean temperature below the long-term average – a negative anomaly, was February, 1985. That’s 324 consecutive months of above average temperature. I think that constitutes a trend ;) , and backs up Susan’s comment about the individual event caveat getting old.

    It also offers a response for those who ask just what is needed to disprove the warming trend, that all we have is natural variability: how about a string of below average months? Attribution is a different issue, but if we can at least get beyond the natural variability issue, which among others is still being pushed by Judith Curry, at least that is a step.

  11. Nullius in Verba says:

    Record-breaking is an interesting statistical issue.

    Let us suppose we have monthly temperature records for a 100 years from 1000 weather stations. For the current year, how many monthly records would you expect if there was no trend? Take a wild guess before reading on – and then see if your intuition holds up.

    OK, how would we work it out? First, let’s ask what the probability is for a single weather station and a single month being a record-breaker. We have 100 numbers, one from each year, and we know that one of them will be the biggest. If it can be any year with equal probability, the odds are 0.01. Or 0.02 if you count record cold as well.

    Now we have 12 months and 1,000 weather stations meaning 12,000 opportunities for this to happen. So we can expect 0.01 of these to turn up, or about 120 all-time once-in-a-century records to occur. That’s roughly 12% of the weather stations.

    Was that what you expected?
    So suppose someone gives you a long list of record-breaking temperatures at various sites from this year. What would you naturally conclude?

    Now suppose we know the temperatures drift gradually up and down and that being in an upswing at the moment, we know going in that we’ll likely be in the top 10% (say). The probability of any given opportunity being a record is 0.1, and of the 12,000 opportunities we might expect 1,200 broken records to occur. Clearly some stations are going to have to have multiple records broken during different months of the year.

    Extreme value statistics (maxima and minima) are unintuitive, and even a mild upward trend can be made to sound more dramatic by expressing it in terms of records broken rather than trend lines of fractions of a degree per decade.

    We live on a world where temperatures range from +50 C in the deserts to -90 C at the southern pole, where temperatures can vary 20 C over months, days, or even hours. Life survives throughout, (more so and with greater diversity where it is warmer, it has to be noted). By averaging temperature records – incomplete, error-ridden, and approximate – over continent-sized areas and decadal expanses of time, we can cancel enough of the noise to see a slight rise, of 0.8 C over a century. If the temperature in your room rose that much, you probably wouldn’t even be able to feel it. And what is hard to detect on a global decadal level is lost in the noise at a local, annual level.

    Global warming is simply too small to detect yet at a local level, which is where people experience weather. Yes, the temperature goes up and down – sometimes systematically over many decades – but it’s done that before and the change is smaller than the natural background noise. You’re seeing things; a victim of the human tendency to see patterns in randomness, to try to see everything as confirmation of prior beliefs. If the dire predictions for the coming century come true, that would change – but so far, local day-to-day weather does not show evidence of unusual climate change, and nor is it expected to.

    This is clearly a problem for those seeking to persuade people to urgent action. Invisible threats are naturally less concerning to people than the ones they face everyday. There is an obvious temptation to make stronger claims, the ends justifying the means. But it is a dangerous strategy, in the long run inevitably counterproductive. Using the weather-is-climate meme teaches a principle that comes back to bite them when cold weather is then interpreted as falsifying the theory. Suddenly switching to saying ‘cold weather is not climate change’, and then back again to ‘warm weather is climate change’ when the tide turns, interpreting every event to suit the message, leaves the public dizzy, confused, and eventually disbelieving.

    Honesty is the best policy. Give people the facts, and if they don’t find them sufficiently alarming to take action, that’s their decision. We’ll deal with the consequences if and when they turn up. But we can’t make good decisions on duff data, and setting the precedent of ‘crying wolf’ whenever we want people to do something will be more damaging. They’ll end up facing their problems with bad data they can’t believe – which is unlikely to lead to very good decisions when they most need them.

    • dhogaza says:

      You would, of course, expect the extreme events to approach 50% higher and lower if there’s no underlying trend. Which is why climatologists talk about the *ratio* of high temp vs. low temp records. Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing the ratio tipped extremely in the direction of high temp recordds – just as one expects if there’s an underlying warming trend.

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        Everyone knows there’s an underlying warming trend.

        The point about looking at extreme values is that it’s particularly sensitive to small changes in the distribution. If the spread is normally from 1 to 9 with extremes in the 0-1 and 9-10 ranges, and the whole thing shifts up by 1 unit, the lower extremes will virtually vanish and the upper extremes will shift the normal into record-breaking territory. The ratio of the two approaches infinity. And yet the shift has only been a tiny fraction of the normal range.

        I’m in favour of giving as complete a picture of what’s going on as possible. What’s the range, where are the extremes, how has it changed, and what effect has that had on the ratio of upper and lower records.

        Similarly, it would be handy if when showing the graph of rising global temperature anomaly, you also plotted the spread of local temperature anomalies, e.g. the spread in monthly (or even daily) temperature anomalies for each gridcell against time. (Perhaps highlight the record-breakers?) The understanding such a graph brings would hopefully reduce the incidence of weather-is-climate stories, because you would be able to see that while the global mean temperature was clearly rising, local weather has a large spread/noise that obscures this on a local level. Snowy winters do not falsify the rise, local heatwaves do not confirm it.

        (Plotting actual temperatures rather than anomalies would deal with a further misunderstanding, but I’d suggest it only in addition to plotting anomaly, as doing that would unfairly obscure the rise entirely.)

  12. Richard Berler says:

    I too noticed the UAH satellite Jan & Feb analysis of cooler than average temperatures for the world as a whole. That said, the duration of these events has been most impressive (2003 Europe, 2010 Russia).

    1936 had a long duration heat event during July and August. A number of North Dakota locations had 14 consecutive 100+ days during July. Steele reached 121 on July 6, and had 4 others over 110 during that stretch. Kansas hit 121, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Texas all touched 120. 14 states still have their absolute maximum set during that summer including 110 as far east as Runyon, New Jersey.

    As far as extremes (especialy long duration events), both hot and cold, becoming more common with a warming climate, I would be interested in seeing an analysis of this over the past century. 1936 would be hard to top…prior to the summer long duration heat event, Jan-Feb of that year produced exceptional cold. North Dakota had their coldest absolute low of -60. Several stations spanned 170F from their coldest minimum to their hottest maximum that year! Steele had 14 consecutive February days with a maximum under -10…5 of the days during that stretch failed to reach as high as -20

  13. Kyle says:

    The problem I see is both sides of the issue are paid shills to promote their own agendas.

    Instead of trying to fight Global Warming we need to find ways to adapt to it instead of scaring businesses out of America then we can have that peaceful utopia.

    In all of history warmer climates have only benefit mankind with longer lives which is likely one of the reasons people in the bible lived to be 500 years old. The climate must’ve been warmer and food was ample.

    Whenever there is more C02 plants grow supersize.

    Here in Western Oregon Mom had some kind of plant that normally dies off in the late fall but they were still going in January which she has never seen before and we’ve lived here 15 years.

    Last Winter according to the bug spray guy who sprayed our house for us the ants never went back to the ground for any lengthy time due to the lack of the hard freeze.

    We usually have one or two hard freezes but instead all we got was inversions where the mountains/foothillls were VERY warm last year.

    This cold spring is simply a make up of the lack of winter.

    What the mainstream scientists do NOT tell you is mother nature WILL find a way to balance everything else while we are tiny ants in the bigger picture. Our smoggy cars are like a tickle to her compared to what all these volcanoes are doing.

  14. Kyle says:

    What if I told you that scientists have proven that the world doesn’t behave the way secular people think but the media is not given them light of day?

    What if I told you that in France they have proven that cause/effect can be out of order?

    Well that has happened.

    Sometime in the late 90s my Dad saw on Nova (back before Global Warming junk took over) that Scientists have made proton particles go faster then light which caused weird things to happen.

    When the scientists went to push the button normally they push the button and there is a flash but instead the second time there was a flash and THEN the scientist push the button to fire the particle bewildering them.

    Obviously there was some kind of warp effect that screwed up casual time.