A Treasure Trove of U.S. Weather Records
Climate Warming Reveals Itself on Web Site
If you're a climatology connoisseur like me, and you haven't yet seen the "U.S. Records" site provided by NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, check it out. This site offers an enticing smorgasbord of data on U.S. weather stations and how often they're bolting past daily, monthly, and all-time records.
In just a few minutes' time, I assembled a list of all the daily records set in 2008 at Reagan National Airport (DCA). Though I searched for both record highs and record lows, I came up empty-handed on the latter: there were, in fact, no record lows set this past year at DCA! Two record highs were set and five were tied.
Keep reading for more information on 2008 local weather records, searching for weather records, and using these records to document climate change...
2008 Record Highs at DCA
|Date||New Record||Old Record (Date)|
|7 Jan||69||67 (1950)|
|8 Jan||73||69 (1998)|
|6 Feb||74*||74 (1938)|
|7 Feb||64*||64 (1938)|
|7 Jun||98*||98 (1999)|
|4 Sep||95*||95 (1985)|
|13 Sep||93*||93 (1952)|
The plot thickened when I looked for "high minimum" (record high low temperatures) and "low maximum" (record low high temperatures) records, although here too, the records skew strongly toward the warm end:
2008 Record High Low Temperatures at DCA
|Date||New Record||Old Record (Date)|
|6 Feb||55||49 (1991)|
|7 Jun||74||73 (1994)|
|9 Jun||77||76 (1981)|
|30 Jul||78*||78 (2002)|
|31 Jul||78*||78 (2006)|
|13 Sep||74||73 (1961)|
|15 Oct||67||66 (1985)|
|28 Dec||50*||50 (1936)|
2008 Record Low High Temperatures at DCA
|Date||New Record||Old Record (Year)|
|12 Jan||42*||42 (2005)|
|12 May||55*||55 (1998)|
|8 Dec||33*||33 (2005)|
Before the Internet, it was virtually impossible for the average citizen to find out which U.S. cities had set record high and lows on a given day. The Weather Channel usually aired the day's most impressive records, but if on-air time was short, those often got trimmed. Typically, you'd see one or two screenfuls of records, but you couldn't tell whether there happened to be 20 or 200 set on that day.
Starting in the mid-to-late 1990s, a few Web sites such as Ohio State University's Twister began to post daily records. However, these were generally pulled from "record event reports" issued by local NWS offices. If a Web site went down for a few hours, it could easily miss some or all the record reports transmitted during that period. And the systems weren't set up to promptly gather record reports for NWS cooperative stations. Those 11,000 volunteer-run COOP sites far outnumber the NWS's 900-plus airport-based automated surface observing station (ASOS) sites, which provide data for weather models and climate research.
The handy NOAA/NCDC online platform gathers and compiles records every day from both COOP and ASOS sites. For each month starting with November 2006, you can look up the number and location of each day's records (i.e,, record highs, record lows, record "high lows," and record "low highs"). The site's well-designed interface allows you to search not only for daily records but also for monthly and all-time records. The search period can be a single day or an entire month. Color-coding helps you quickly see which records are broken versus merely tied. You can even filter out COOP stations if you like.
All this functionality makes the site a treat to play with. And as fun as this site is to explore off the cuff, the U.S. Records site may also prove useful for more dedicated research. I've long felt that daily temperature records are a neglected but potentially fruitful place to look for signs of climate change. Extremes are what people notice, after all, and heat waves and cold waves are among the deadliest of weather phenomena. Any changes in records--including, say, the amount by which a given record is set--could serve as a useful indicator of trends in multiday outbreaks of heat and cold.
Of course, the likelihood of setting a record depends strongly on the length of the data base, which is why this site includes periods of record for every max or min. Geographic spread is another big plus. The DCA examples above are from merely one data point, and heat-island effects are surely at work here (as in other urban areas), but a set of 10,000-plus stations across all 50 states provides a much bigger and broader database. There's plenty of scientific meat here, yet the site is so easy to navigate that an enterprising student could use it to craft a great science-fair project.
If nothing else, the U.S. Records site provides plenty of fodder to respond to "climate change is hooey" articles, such as an October post at prisonplanet.com entitled "Global Cooling: Record Low Temperatures Hit America." The piece states: "Data compiled by the IceAgeNow website shows that record lows are being matched and broken on an almost daily basis in states throughout the U.S. as the country prepares for a freezing cold winter." Fair enough: the U.S. Records site does show that the nation broke or tied 1099 record lows in October, compared to 733 record highs. But in November, the ratio switches to 1564 highs vs. 883 lows, and in December the ratio was 1654 highs vs. a mere 556 lows, despite the much-publicized onslaught of cold and snow across the nation's northern tier.
Indeed, when you start adding up daily records over long periods--months to years--it quickly becomes obvious that "the highs have it." In fact, record highs have tended to predominate over record lows by a 2:1 to 3:1 ratio over most of the last few years, according to Guy Walton, a behind-the-scenes forecaster at The Weather Channel. Walton has been compiling these statistics on his own throughout the decade--with his task made much easier by the debut of the U.S. Records site.
| January 12, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Government, Local Climate, U.S. Weather
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