Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Breaking records, changing climate

A refreshing walk 'round the block on this blustery, 60-degree morning has me itching to garden. But... it's January. It is supposed to be the dead of winter. It is the dead of winter, in fact. Two days from now, the temperatures will be back in the teens.

This happened last January, too—an unseasonably warm day in between some very seasonably cold days. I biked to the train. (I considered biking today, but chickened out; we're expecting some wild weather later.) So, the occasional, drastic temperature fluctuation is not all that unusual and won't by itself send me screaming, "Global warming!" There are plenty of other weather extremes that point to climate change.

This season, Chicago broke a couple of old records regarding snowfall, or more accurately, regarding the amount of time without snowfall, while also reaching some of the coldest temperatures of recent history. I ask you, what fun is the cold without any snow? (Your answer: Why, no fun at all!)

It doesn't matter whether you're looking at snowfall or rainfall, 2012 was one of the driest years on the books, with precipitation levels hanging awfully close to those of the driest year (1962, according to climatestations.com). Only four years ago we reached the opposite extreme—2008 was a record wet year for Chicagoland.

Here and everywhere else in the world, we're bouncing back and forth from drought to flooding to drought... And if you think the rainiest years will balance out the driest years, you're forgetting something. When the heavy rain happens all at once, the ground can't hold it. The water doesn't stick around to be saved for later—it runs off! Washing out crops and sweeping away towns as it goes. So, when it's a wet year, things get destroyed, while the dry years negatively impact the navigability of important rivers, in turn affecting important things like the transportation of grain in the Midwest.

Now, I mentioned that this winter had some of the coldest temperatures. And yet, almost every summer, we hear reports that it's the hottest year on record. What's the deal? I told you, weather extremes. As with precipitation, we're reaching the lowest lows and the highest highs, but overall, the years are warmer. Look at this graph. The green line is 2012, and you can see the cold temperatures of January and February spiking down toward the blue, long-term-average line (but not quite getting there!), while the rest of the year pretty much follows—and sometimes even exceeds—the temperatures of the previous record-warm year.

Chicago 2012 mean temperature vs. record warm and average, climatestations.com

It's all bad news, folks. Something's gotta change, and that something is us.

I know that it's difficult in the dead of winter (even a warm winter) to be green. Even I want long, hot showers and the heat cranked up. I hate wearing layers! But really, the quick showers and the giant pile of blankets on the couch need to be the norm, rather than the occasional small sacrifice. And that nice hot soak in the tub needs to be a rare treat, not a weekly indulgence.

You get the picture.

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