D.C.'s winter was cold, but the globe stayed toasty
* Sunny & warmer by midweek: CWG's Full Forecast *
The data is in on the wild winter of 2009-2010, and you don't need me to tell you that it was unusually cold and snowy in the United States, particularly here in the mid-Atlantic. However, you may be surprised to find out that from a global perspective, the past few months were actually exceptionally warm. In fact, aside from the U.S., as well as parts of Europe and northern Asia, most of the globe experienced warmer-than-normal temperatures this winter (or, in the Southern Hemisphere, this summer).
A brief journey back through the winter shows the stark differences between the cold U.S. and a warm globe.
First, let's start with the domestic stats. According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), for meteorological winter (December through February), nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the lower-48 states experienced below-normal temperatures. At Reagan National Airport it was the 34th coldest February on record.
Looking at Reagan National's daily highs and lows separately tells the story of a month that featured very cold days with nights that were closer to average. Daily highs averaged 6.4 degrees below normal, whereas nighttime lows were only 1.4 degrees colder than normal. The airport recorded a sole 50-degree day during the month, making it the first February since 1934 to have a monthly maximum temperature of just 50 degrees.
Unusual cold repeatedly spilled all the way to the Gulf Coast, with Florida recording its fourth coldest February on record, for example. The lower-48 states were 2.2 degrees below average during the month of February.
The NCDC's February climate overview contains interesting details about the costs of the major East Coast snowstorms last month, with one preliminary analysis coming in at $2 billion. For example, the climate agency cited $18 million in snow removal costs and lost revenue from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority alone, as well as $100 million for each of the 4.5 days that the federal government shut down. (Check out CWG's summary of the Washington area's remarkable snow season).
One consequence of the cold winter in the U.S. has been an uptick in public skepticism of the widely held scientific theory that manmade emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and oil for energy, are causing the climate to warm over the longer term (e.g. multi-decadal time scales).
Yet, if the polls and climate data are accurate, this increase in skepticism is taking place at the same time as the planet as a whole continues to warm. This makes for an odd dichotomy in which public opinion is headed -- at least temporarily -- in the opposite direction of the scientific community.
A broader perspective on this winter can be gained by examining conditions in America's northern neighbor. While storm after storm blitzed the U.S., Canada experienced its warmest and driest winter on record, which forced organizers of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver to resort to innovative ways of manufacturing snow cover.
The average temperature in Canada for the period from December through February was 4.0 degrees Celsius above normal, which beat out the winter of 2005-2006 for the title of warmest winter on record. Canada has not had a cooler-than-normal winter since 1997, and Canadian winters have warmed by 2.5 degrees Celsius since 1948, according to Environment Canada. David Philips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, told the CanWest News Service that "It's like winter was cancelled in this country."
The warm Canadian winter has sparked concerns about summer wildfires, and an even more destructive march by mountain pine beetles through the vast forests of British Columbia and other provinces. Extreme cold is the best weapon that forest managers have against the beetles.
The warmth in Canada extended into much of the Arctic, where sea ice remained far below average in terms of aerial extent. As I detailed in January, the cold in the U.S. and Europe, and warmth in Canada and the Arctic, were caused in large part by an unusual dive in the Arctic Oscillation, or AO. The AO is a short-term climate pattern that influences the weather in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly during the winter.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the extreme negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation this winter resulted in unusual Arctic warmth, since it steered cold air into the U.S. and Europe instead. However, the weather patterns may actually have benefited the sea ice by reducing the amount of ice that was flushed out of the Arctic by ocean currents and winds. This could lead to a less extreme melt season this summer.
Skipping from the Arctic to the Southern Hemisphere, Australia has experienced its warmest nine months on record, and record-high summer temperatures occurred this summer in western Australia especially, according to the Australian Burea of Meteorology. Furthermore, as is evident from the NASA image of global temperature anomalies this winter, most of Africa, South America and South/Southeast Asia had a warmer-than-normal winter.
While this winter's global warmth was likely caused mainly by natural factors like El Niño and the AO, possibly with some sort of an assist from human activities, it's clear that the impression many Americans may have gotten -- that suddenly the world is in a deep freeze -- is far from accurate. So far, the climate is right on track for another unusually warm year.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.
| March 15, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science
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