“It’s so cold outside!” a woman in the elevator said to me the other day. But it really wasn’t. It was in the 20s, and in Princeton, N.J., that may be below average for February, but it isn’t at all unusual. We often have stretches of a week or more when the temperature never gets above the low 20s, and it’s not rare to see a reading in the teens for a few days in a row. So that particular day wasn’t terribly cold, and the cold snap, such as it was, had lasted 48 hours at most.
A glimpse of the 2010 winter in Princeton, NJ. This year, temperatures are starkly different reaching the high 50's, low 60's at times. Credit: The University Press Club
The rest of the winter, aside from a few short blips of not-so-frigid weather, has been ridiculously warm, with daytime highs usually in the 40s, 50s and even occasionally in the low 60s. And as I left the office yesterday, with the temperature hovering just below 50, I said to myself, “This is great! I wouldn’t mind if winters stayed like this from now on!”
That won’t happen right away. Even with global warming, this unusually warm winter has more to do with short-term fluctuations in local climate. Europe is having an unusually cold winter, and next year both places may return to more familiar conditions. But in the long term, balmy winters are likely to become more common here. The idea of climate change doesn’t seem so bad, suddenly.
But what was I thinking? I’ve been writing about the enormous risks posed by climate change for more than 20 years. I know about the rising seas that threaten hundreds of millions of people, in some...
By Andrew Freedman
If you are one of the millions of Americans wondering why winter is missing in action this year, look no further than a sign hanging above the entrance to a hardware store on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. I walk by that store every day on my way to and from the Borough Hall subway station, and I’m quite confident the sign single-handedly banished winter to the Arctic this year.
“Be prepared for winter,” the sign screams in red neon letters that zoom across the screen like a Times Square news ticker. “Get your shovels, sleds, salt, and snow blowers here!”
When I saw the sign for the first time back in November, I figured it was a prudent move, considering that last year New York and much of the country experienced punishing blizzards that broke snowfall records. One such storm last January dumped nearly 2 feet of snow in Brooklyn, and was accompanied by the holy grail of weather phenomena (for a snow lover anyway) — thundersnow. That rare blend of simultaneous snow and thunder is the only thing that transforms seasoned Weather Channel anchors like Jim Cantore and Mike Seidel from sober-minded analysts into teen weather nerds yelling, “Did you see that? Thundersnow! Holy smokes!”
This year we actually experienced thundersnow again, except that it occurred in October, when a massively destructive early-season snowstorm slammed New England with close to 3 feet of snow. But that storm only counts for the a...
By Michael D. Lemonick
Dog bites man: news or not? If you’re a journalist, you don’t even need to think about it. The phrase is our professional shorthand for an idea that hardly qualifies as news, that it's not out of the ordinary. Man bites dog (goes the second half of the cliché), now that’s news!
It’s not an ironclad rule, though: if the dog bites the man after winning first place at the Westminster Dog Show, or if a marauding dog is biting its way through a terrified neighborhood, or if First Dog Bo bites Sasha or Malia — that’s news, too.
So when January 2012 was officially declared America’s fourth warmest January on record yesterday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was that news or not? Here at Climate Central, we thought it was. But then, we would. Do a Google News search, and you’ll find that a whopping eight news outlets agreed with us, and one of them was the Weather Channel, so it hardly counts. (Extra points to msnbc.com, which came up with a clever angle: it feels like it must be the warmest January ever, but surprise! It’s only fourth!) But for most media, it was kind of ho-hum, because, really, haven’t we heard it all before? It’s always the warmest this, or the second-warmest that.
For scientists who think about climate, though, that’s the point. Especially in the past decade — a time when climate skeptics argue, bizarrely, that global warming has stopped — these records or near-records...
By Andrew Freedman
Let’s face it, human beings are not very good at dealing with distant, relatively uncertain threats. Whether we’re talking about environmental risks, such as climate change, or systemic economic peril, such as the collapse of mortgage-backed securities that led to the 2008 financial crisis, our brains are hard-wired to focus on dangers that are front and center rather than the hard-to-see hazards that may lurk down the road.
As seen with both disaster warnings and climate change threats, our brains focus on dangers in the present not those that lurk down the road. Credit: NOAA Photo Library/flickr
But it turns out that even with a near-term, existential threat — such as a massive tornado barreling toward us — people still respond in complicated, often unpredictable ways that run counter to common sense.
That is what researchers have learned from the unusually deadly 2011 tornado season, in which 551 people lost their lives, mainly in southern states such as Alabama and Missouri. The findings have unsettling implications for how well we’re likely to deal with the more diffuse risk of global warming.
One post-mortem analysis, in particular, contains fascinating insights into how the residents of Joplin, Mo., which was devastated by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, responded to warnings of the approaching twister. Although this was a single tornado with, at best, tangential connections to global warming, it contains important lessons that are relevant to climate change communications and policy making.
The National Weather Service (NWS) assessment report on the Joplin tornado fo...
By Andrew Freedman
An Obama administration plan to cut costs by combining several government agencies may make good political sense, coming in the midst of the Republican presidential primary season, with its heated small-government rhetoric. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea from a policy perspective.
In fact, the White House proposal that would move the country’s oceans and atmosphere agency — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — from its current home in the Commerce Department and fold it into the Interior Department, could severely undermine America’s climate and weather research efforts, as well as marine resource protection. Worse, it comes at a time when climate change beseeches us to build those capacities.
NOAA is the lead agency studying and predicting extreme weather events and long-term climate change, critical responsibilities that put it front and center this past year when the U.S. was struck with a record 14 weather and climate events that caused at least $1 billion in damage. Those included multiple deadly tornado outbreaks, an East Coast hurricane, and a devastating drought in Texas.
More important, NOAA’s National Weather Service saved thousands of lives by issuing timely watches and warnings of these events. In addition, NOAA’s research labs, which produce some of the most cutting-edge climate science research in the world, helped put the extreme events in historical context...