Global Warming Not Responsible for 1998’s Unusual Weather

Published March 1, 1999

The United States may have experienced more than its fair share of unusual weather during 1998, but that had nothing to do with global warming.

The advocates of global warming theory were quick to seize on last summer’s heat waves and the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch as evidence that global warming is underway. Then, the mild early winter weather had some Americans wondering if global warming might in fact be a good thing.

Even President Clinton, during a December 3 visit to Newport, Rhode Island, commented, “. . . on this magnificent December day in Rhode Island, it’s hard to see [global warming] as a threat.”

Many Americans no doubt agree. December’s milder-than-usual temperatures permitted Americans to enjoy such outdoor activities as bicycling, running, and golfing a little longer in 1998. Perhaps more important, the mild weather saved consumers a considerable amount of money in heating bills. In November, declining demand for heating fuel resulted in a 12 percent drop in spot gas prices–good news for consumers, particularly those on fixed incomes.

But mild weather can no more be credited to global warming than severe weather events like hurricanes can be blamed on it. Just because the weather is mild in one area of the world does not mean the entire planet is warmer. Indeed, at the very time the U.S. enjoyed mild weather, Europe had been experiencing a severe cold snap. Since the first week of November, temperatures in northern Scandinavia had repeatedly fallen below -20° F, while Moscow’s temperature was consistently below freezing.

The mild December weather in the U.S. was more likely linked to La Niña, the large-scale drop in sea surface temperatures across the central and eastern tropical Pacific, than global warming. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), La Niñas are characterized by warmer than normal winters in the Southeast and colder than normal winters in the Northwest.

It’s also worth noting that mild winter temperatures in the U.S. are nothing new. In December 1888–when the planet was colder than it is today–Pennsylvania reached 82° F.

Proponents of the global warming theory have also erroneously assumed that the high death toll from Hurricane Mitch–estimated at 11,000–is evidence that human activities are warming the planet beyond acceptable levels. To drive this point home, scientists for NOAA announced that Mitch was the deadliest hurricane in the Atlantic basin since 1780, when a hurricane that struck Martinique, St. Eustatius and Barbados killed 22,000 people.

Of course, setting a 218-year hurricane fatality record is hardly evidence that global warming is underway. For one thing, the 1780 Caribbean hurricane occurred during the Little Ice Age, when the planet was close to 1° F cooler than it is today. Since twice as many people lost their lives to that hurricane as lost their lives to Mitch, hurricane fatalities seem to be a poor measure of the planet’s temperature.

Moreover, hurricane fatalities should be higher today than they were 50, 100, or even 200 years ago–even assuming no change in hurricane intensity–due to increases in population density and better record-keeping methods. As population grows, more people will be vulnerable to severe weather. It’s as simple as that.

Finally, it is not clear that Hurricane Mitch was the most deadly hurricane since 1780. A hurricane striking Galveston, Texas in 1900 killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people. In its haste to show “record” hurricane fatalities, NOAA simply edited out the upper range of this death estimate.

Global warming theory advocates have also argued that last year’s heat waves were the result of global warming, as though the U.S. had never experienced hot weather before. But 1998’s hot weather didn’t even set records. North America’s record high was reached on July 10, 1913, when Death Valley hit a sweltering 134° F. None of the other seven continents broke records in 1998 either. Africa hit its record high in 1922, Asia in 1942, Australia in 1889, Europe in 1881, South America in 1905, Oceania in 1912, and Antarctica in 1974. So much for “record” temperatures being linked to global warming.

Those seeking a regulatory fix for global warming may have second thoughts following early December’s mild weather. Some climate scientists believe that warmer global temperatures would produce not hotter days and sweltering summers, but milder evening and winter temperatures and longer growing seasons. Before we move to stop global warming, we must not only be sure it is underway . . . but also that we want to stop it.

David A. Ridenour is Vice President of the National Center for Public Policy Research.