The results are in, and 2013 ranks as the fourth hottest year for global heat since record-keeping began in 1880. That’s 37 straight years with above-average global temperatures. The last below-normal year was 1976, when I was still in college. All 13 years of the new century have ranked among the hottest 15 ever on record. And nine of the hottest ten on record have all occurred since the millennium.
Wow. I guess it’s really hot, right?
Um, well, let me check. Yup, just like I thought. It’s cold out there, and it’s snowing! With these freak winter storms, the U.S. has registered the second coldest January since 2000, although well short of 2011’s January freeze. And everyone’s talking about that strange new term – the “polar vortex.” It seems something has kicked open the door to the Arctic, and the cold is pouring in everywhere.
Actually, not quite everywhere. While the Central and Eastern U.S. shiver and dig, it’s eerily warm in Alaska and the West. Last Sunday, it was warmer in Homer, Alaska – 55°F – than anywhere in the lower 48, except for South Florida. And last Tuesday, Nome, Alaska, that remotest of Arctic outposts, hit a record 51°F. That’s FIFTY-ONE DEGREES in January! No need for Balto under these circumstances. You could rescue Nome by bicycle.
And it’s not just Alaska. Los Angeles registered average highs of 75°F for the month of January, a full seven degrees above normal. And coupled with the heat, California is in its third straight year of crippling drought, with the state’s reservoirs 30 percent below the long-term average, and widely-publicized forecasts for spikes in prices at the grocery store.
But let’s not quibble. The Central and Eastern U.S. are feeling pretty darn cold just now. After an amazingly warm decade in these parts, what’s up? Are all those scientists still sure about the perils of global warming?
No Question, It’s Been Getting Much Hotter
Both NASA and NOAA – the nation’s twin atmospheric research powerhouses – have compiled the data for 2013, and it was another global scorcher. Using slightly different methods, they ranked 2013 the fourth hottest (NOAA) or the seventh (NASA) – but the difference between the two was a mere 0.02o Fahrenheit.
Given the small distinctions, it’s not so much where any individual year ranks, but the accumulating trends which have become clear over the decades. The 2000’s were hotter than the 90’s, which were hotter than the 80’s, which were hotter than the 70’s. And all the while, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been climbing steadily as mankind has been burning more and more fossil fuels. Last year, atmospheric CO2 broke 400 parts per million, approaching fifty percent higher than the levels that have governed the Earth’s climate throughout human civilization.
But for 2014, there’s more worrisome news. Global heat usually peaks during an El Niño event – the natural cycle in the tropical Pacific that tends to boost global temperatures for a period of 1-2 years. In 2013, we had the opposite of El Niño – a condition called La Niña – which tends to suppress global heat. But in the second half of 2014, climate projections call for a return of El Niño. The unrelenting increase in greenhouse gases will then have blown past 400 ppm (that will happen in April), suggesting that 2014 and 2015 could set whole new heat records, with potentially devastating consequences. If so, the droughts, floods, freak storms and rising sea levels we’ve been enduring in recent years may prove to be nothing but a minor prelude to the suffering and cost to come.
Then Why This Crazy Winter Weather?
To begin with, you’ve noticed that almost all of our weather has been crazy recently, no? In 2013, we saw history’s most violent storm, Super Typhoon Haiyan, devastate the Philippines. Much of Africa and California were in severe droughts, as was northern Brazil – before it suffered record flooding in December. And that came on the heels of 2012, with the $100-billion Super Storm Sandy, the punishing drought that crippled half of the Lower 48 combined with all-time record heat levels, an Arctic summer ice melt that broke all prior records by huge margins, and record Western wildfires that burned an area the size of Connecticut.
But crazy is one thing. Crazy cold – in a warming world – that’s another matter entirely. And that’s where the polar vortex comes in. The polar vortex is a fast-moving pattern of air in the upper atmosphere moving from west to east around the Arctic, fueled by the effects of the frigid polar air meeting the temperate atmosphere of the lower latitudes. In recent decades, the Arctic has been warming faster than the temperate zones, and as a result, the pace of the polar vortex has weakened. Like a spinning top running out of steam, it has begun to wobble, with increasingly pronounced sweeps of cold air to the south, and warm snaps in northern latitudes.
Some researchers suspect that the blame for these cold snaps lies with global warming, and the circumstantial evidence is pretty compelling. Others aren’t so sure, citing inadequate understanding of the causes of the wobbly polar vortex. This is perhaps one of very few areas of climate science where a real debate rages – compared to the manufactured doubts that plague our political debates.
I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for several years’ more research before we know with greater certainty whether our cold snaps are actually the result of Arctic warming. But this winter, we know that a massive high pressure “block” in the Northern Pacific drove Arctic winds deeply to the south, resulting in record heat for Alaska, the American West, and Russia, but bringing extreme cold to the American Midwest and East Coast.
So if you’re worried about record heat around the globe, you’re on target. And if you’ve had enough of the bitter Eastern winter, you’ll get no argument from us. And if you’re nervously watching as our rich Western croplands wither, so are we.
Maybe it’s time we began to ask our policymakers to take serious action to protect the groaning creation? You can take the first step by clicking here.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.