On April 18, 2000, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator James Baker and Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) Director James Lee Witt held a press conference where they released data showing that the period January through March was the warmest in the 106 years of NOAA records.
Did they mention how much everyone liked these warm winter months? Did they talk about the energy savings? Did they bring up the extra rounds of golf, the lack of weather-related airport delays, or even the extra days outside that we all seemed to enjoy?
Of course not. Instead, they told us that “the climate is changing faster than ever before” and that “ignoring these changes could be costly to the nation.”
Could be costly to the nation? It sure would have been interesting to see their calculations of how much this past winter’s record warmth actually cost the nation.
Two winters ago, when El Niño was responsible for a much warmer than usual winter across the country, Stanley Changnon, one of the world’s most eminent climatologists, calculated that we saved more than $6.7 billion in heating costs alone. Since this winter was even warmer, we can only guess that the savings mounted up even higher.
Baker and Witt imply that the warm winter over the United States is part of a larger pattern of global warming. They said that “small changes in global temperatures can lead to more extreme weather events, including droughts, floods, and hurricanes.”
We thought that it would be interesting to see just what the pattern of warming was across the world that they say will lead to these weather atrocities. We can’t say we were surprised to find that during the same period that the United States was warm (January through March), most of the remaining parts of the planet were cooler than normal.
In fact, the global average temperature, according to measurements made from NASA satellites, was 0.16°C (0.29°F) below normal. How could global warming be responsible for a warm winter across the United States, yet cause a cold winter in most of western Asia and across the Black Sea and a cool summer in South America, Australia, and Antarctica?
Were the last three months evidence of global warming—or merely regional climate variability? After all, local variability reflects the nature of climate itself, and it is very difficult to determine whether the observed patterns are purely natural or are in some small way affected by the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s doubly hard to conflate local temperatures to global change when most of the surface is cooler than average! Some might say Baker cooked the data.
FEMA has a vested interest in spreading the notion that weather is getting more disastrous; otherwise its budget goes down. But NOAA’s own records show that drought frequency and intensity have not changed in the United States during the past 106 years; instead, a slight increase in precipitation has led to higher base stream flows and more water for everyone.
Despite the U.S. government’s rhetoric, its citizens are enjoying the weather these days. Maybe we should call a press conference!
Changnon, S.A., 1999. Impacts of the 1997-1998 El Niño-generated weather in the United States. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 80, 1819-1827.