as i sit on my couch this morning finishing up this post all my windows are open and the birds are chirping in the trees…
maybe you are enjoying the same mild winter morning.
and if you live in the midwest, specifically indiana, this might look strange to you this winter:
throughout january we went from over 60 degree days to freezing rain, then a thunderstorm (!), light snow, warm rains, cold again, and now warm for the last few days of the month- but most of the month was warm and mild. usually we are buried under piles of snow and complaining of cabin fever by this time in the winter. instead i hear murmurings of “spring fever” and promises of “spring cleaning”…have we forgotten spring is still months away, technically? i am the first to take advantage of a beautiful day, at least to briefly sit outside and soak in some sunshine…but this is truly weird! as much as i enjoy it, i can’t help but listen to that voice in my head screaming “this just isn’t right!“
so i have questions, and maybe you do too. i often look around and wonder what this unseasonable weather means for us, our plants, animals, life cycles….our home. luckily i have someone i can turn to with all my questions and concerns: Allison is not only my best friend, she is also an environmental scientist. so i turned to her with some of my pressing questions.
*Allison is speaking for herself, friend to friend.*
J: We are all loving this warm winter weather, but we have seen other unusual weather patterns that are not as enjoyable. Why are we seeing these new patterns and what do they mean for our future weather patterns?
A: Let me give you an often used analogy: suppose you have a favorite baseball player, who one day begins to take steroids. This baseball player used to hit home runs every so often. But now, all of a sudden, he’s hitting them out of the park several times a game. And they’re getting hit super far- way way past the bleacher seats. Now, it wouldn’t be weird to see this baseball player hitting a home run- he’s hit them before. But suddenly he’s hitting them much more frequently and much farther. This makes you say “hmmm… something isn’t right here. Something is giving him more energy”. What we’re doing to our atmosphere is kind of like pumping it full of steroids. A warm day in January, a hurricane, a heat wave– all these things have happened in the past and aren’t completely out of our realm of weather possibilities. But now, suddenly, they’re happening much more frequently, and with much more (scary!) intensity.
So, with a warming climate, you can expect to see much more frequent weather events, like heat waves, droughts, floods, and storms. And these events are much more likely to be more intense than what we consider to be “usual”. In fact, we’re already seeing it: in 2011 there was at least 14 extreme weather events in the US where the damage exceeded $1 billion dollars. This is a LOT more than we usually get, and definitely suggests that climate change had a big role in our unseasonable weather.
J: Are we going to see more unseasonable weather in other seasons? Will it snow in July or is the trend only in the direction of warming?
A: Remember: Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. Weather is very chaotic and changes all the time- that’s why its so hard for meteorologists to predict it! But climate is a long-term average of what we expect the weather to be.
This is actually a really great animation that helps to explain this concept, using a dog-walker and his dog. Check it out- its only a minute long video!
It is very hard for any climate scientist to point to one extreme weather event and say “Aha! That’s climate change!”. But climate change makes the frequency and intensity of these sorts of events much more probable. So it’s possible to see random weird cold days in summer and random weird warm days in winter. But climate change is looking at the long term trend, underlying all these small-time-scale weather events.
That said, as our climate gets warmer and warmer, the cold extreme weather events become less and less likely. We can see this in the decreasing number of record cold temperatures in the US. So there may be an unusually cold day here and there, but they will become more and more unusual as our climate warms.
J: How is this warm weather affecting our natural environment? I have heard bits and pieces about animals and plants being out of their natural cycles…can you tell me more about that and what it means for us, our plants and our animals?
A: Climate change has already had many different effects on our environment. One of the big effects is changing the timing of seasons. Snow may melt earlier, which can be bad for some cold-dependent crops (like apples) and plants. Birds may not migrate as far south. Scientists have found different flowers start blooming earlier (get ready all of you people allergic to ragweed!). Changes in the seasons can affect the geographical areas where animals (and the food they eat) live, making it hard for them to adapt.
A lot of these changes are really bad for farmers. Agriculture is heavily dependent on the climate. Check out this cool graphic by the USDA, who recently had to update all their plant hardiness maps. This means, this spring when you look on the back of your seed packets, the color coded map that tells you what you can plant in your area will be different. It had to be updated to take climate change into consideration. Extreme weather events, like floods and droughts, are also really bad for farmers. In the Midwest, you can expect a lower frequency of rain… but when it does rain it will pour! These heavy precipitation events that occur after long periods of dryness are really hard on crops.
Don’t forget, it’ll be tough on us too. Besides for those suffering from ragweed allergies, we’re also seeing an increase in heat-related deaths across the country (though a decrease in cold-related deaths). A longer summer is also good news for disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks.
J: What can we do to prevent further damage while still feeling free to enjoy unseasonable weather?
A: Everyone has to make that decision for themselves, so I’ll just give you my personal opinion on the matter. In my opinion, the best thing you can do to avoid climate change is to use your civic power to vote, talk to your representatives about your concerns, and pressure the government to take actions to mitigate greenhouse emissions. It also helps just to talk about it with your friends and family and neighbors. It’s not as divisive a topic as you’d expect– most people treasure the national parks they visited as a kid, or care about how the climate will affect our farmers, or feel that it is their religious duty to care for the Earth. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to find people who don’t want clean air to breathe or clean water to drink.
And this unseasonably warm weather in January makes it very easy to go out and enjoy our environment. It’s a great opportunity to take your kids out into nature and instill in them a deep respect for their surroundings and the amazing beauty of our environment. Perhaps the best things we can do is to encourage that kind of care and respect in our kids, and to encourage them to learn the science and math skills that will make them capable of tackling these problems in the future.
thank you Allison for answering some questions for me…
(for all of us!)
do you still have unanswered questions? if so, please leave them in the comments below. i will be featuring allison on my blog more often, and your questions will be answered by her in time!
*here’s an article from today that might answer more questions! What’s Up With the Wacky Weather in the Washingtonian
i would also love to hear what you are doing/ interested in doing to enjoy this warm winter weather, how you teach the children in your life to respect the environment, and/or how you & your family do you part to make change.
for now, let’s all enjoy the beauty of our environments and educate ourselves and our children so we can all be mindful, respectful and educated about our daily decisions!