Baby It's Cold Outside, But Keep Your Eyes on the Climate

ImaGeo iconImaGeoBy Tom YulsmanFeb 10, 2014 9:56 PM


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This animation shows how surface temperatures departed from the long-term average between Jan. 1 and Feb. 6, 2014. (Individual images from NOAA's Earth Systems Research Laboratory. Animation: Tom Yulsman) For the United States, it certainly has been a shockingly unusual winter so far, with Alaska baking, much of the lower 48 states shivering — and a broad swath of the country from Texas to North Carolina bracing today for yet another blast of cold, snow and freezing rain. (And let's not forget California, which despite recent rains is still suffering from drought.) You can see the evolution of this winter's temperatures between January 1 and Feb. 6 in the animation above. I made it using individual daily maps showing how temperature departed from the long-term average. I count five or six individual outbreaks of frigid polar air blasting across much of the Lower 48. Meanwhile, look at Alaska. Thanks to a stubborn ridge of high pressure, it stays much warmer than normal for most of the time. Greenland and other parts of the Arctic are mostly warm as well, while frigid air surges south out of Siberia on a couple of occasions. In our day-to-day lives, it can be easy to generalize too much about what we're experiencing. In Alaska, I reckon many people who were skeptical of the reality of global warming and attendant climate change might be having second thoughts. Ditto in Australia, by the way, where the state of Victoria has been experiencing its worst fire conditions in years. Over the weekend, bushfires there are reported to have set an open-pit coal mine ablaze and destroyed dozens of homes. Meanwhile, in the midwestern heartland of the United States, where it has been decidedly cold outside, folks could be forgiven for feeling a bit more skeptical than they may have been before. Research shows pretty clearly that our immediate experiences do, in fact, color our perceptions about things like climate change. As Marika Konnikova writes in the New Yorker:

The closer you are to an experience—be it a pain au chocolat you just ate, an article you just read, or the weather outside as you walked to the office—the more that experience colors your beliefs. In a phenomenon known as attribute substitution, we substitute the most immediately available, recent information for more general—and relevant—information when we make a judgment or a decision.

From an evolutionary standpoint, favoring immediately available information kind of makes sense, given that our ancestors had to focus more on saber-toothed cats than grappling with slow, long-term climate change. Not everyone is easily swayed by what they experience on the way to work. The research also shows that people at opposite poles of belief about issues like climate change tend not to shift that much based on the vicissitudes of weather. But people in the middle — the vast majority — are prone to blowing hot and cold, or at least warm and cool, depending on what the thermometer says. Over the long-run, extreme cold is actually becoming increasingly rare in the United States, thanks to warming that stems from our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As Andrew Freedman of Climate Central points out, research shows that "overall, winters across the contiguous U.S. have warmed by .61°F per decade since 1970, and every region has warmed at least somewhat over that time." But to be honest, I've felt my own level of concern about warming and changes to climate slip ever so slightly each time I've donned my heavy down coat this winter, and pulled on my new Sorrel winter boots (which kept me warm in Norway down to -25 F!). I'm only human. So in the interest in helping myself and others keep our eyes on the big picture — both geographically and over time — I thought I'd share this too:

If you have Google Earth and would like to explore how temperatures have changed over time in different parts of the world over time, click to download a spectacular layer file from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. (Source: Images from Google Earth. Animation: Tom Yulsman) In the animation above, consisting of two screenshots from Google Earth, North America is overlaid with a grid of red and green boxes, each one 5° on a side. This is how the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit divides the world to calculate changes in temperature over time. If you have Google Earth, you can obtain a graph of temperature change within any of the boxes — the one covering where you live or anywhere else in the world. First, click on the image to download a KML file that will add a layer to Google Earth. Then click on the file to launch the layer. When Google Earth opens, click on any of the grid boxes to see how the average annual temperature has changed over time there. Then click within the box to check how temperatures have changed at each of the monitoring stations in that area. (All told, there are 4,800 individual monitoring stations on land.) Here is what the annual temperature time-series looks like for Duluth, Minnesota, a town that has had its share of particularly cold weather this winter:

Source: Google Earth and Climatic Research Unit This graph illustrates the issue perfectly. Year by year, the average temperature varies quite a bit, thanks to natural variations in the climate system. At the same time, the overall trend is clear. But we're not really all that attuned to changes that play out over a time frame measured in decades. And as I finish this post, I'm contemplating having to throw on my down coat and those Sorrel boots — because I most definitely am attuned to the fact that it is bloody cold out right now.

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