Climate change: Luck of the draw

Michael Williams

Across the country, this winter’s abnormal weather, with ice-storms in Atlanta and exacerbation of an existing drought in the American west, has characterized the season.

Compared to odd freeze and thaw patterns in the last few years (the early spring of 2012 brought NMU students to the beach on St. Patrick’s Day), the record low temperatures have been striking. Coupled with scorching summers, climatological ebbs and flows may appear extreme.

“This is the coldest winter on record,” said Justin Titus, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Negaunee, referring to the Upper Peninsula specifically. “It’s the persistent temperatures that add up to making it the coldest winter. [In Negaunee] we’ve broken the record for days below zero. The record was 57, we’ve had 58.”

Breaking records are significant, but actual records only go back to the 1960s. Even so, the Upper Peninsula as a whole has had record-setting weather, with the exception of Marquette.

Marquette is in a microclimate, with the Keweenaw Peninsula protecting it from some of the harsh lake effect from the west. Despite the microclimate (the Upper Peninsula has many), Titus maintains that the weather is extreme.

“It’s safe to say it’s one of the coldest winters in over 100 years,” Titus said.

The danger then lies in the Upper Peninsula acting as an isolated incident. While this season’s patterns have been odd across the nation, there’s no singular trend to characterize the variability.

Stephen DeGoosh in the Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences (EEGS) department has integrated climate change into his curriculum.

“It appears to not be atypical of the kinds of weather you’d expect in the UP,” DeGoosh said. “The problem is looking at it through the lens of the UP. The problem (climate change) becomes clear when you look at it from a global perspective.”

Or even a continental perspective. The west coast of North America has experienced warm, dry weather throughout this winter. Norma Froelich of the EEGS department studies climate.

“We’ve had weird weather, but Alaska is facing some of the warmest weather they’ve ever had [on record],” Froelich said. “Maybe next year Alaska will be extremely cold and we will have a warm year.”

Highlighting the variability produced by climate change is perhaps the most crucial point of the conversation. While global average temperatures appear to be increasing, the extreme lows that Titus mentioned are a factor.

The adverse effects of climate change are also at the forefront of the conversation. The weather produced by climatological instability is damaging in itself.

“One of the big predictions is that there are going to be more severe storms in both directions,” Froelich said, directions meaning in cold and warm weather patterns. “There will be more outbreaks of polar weather heading down.”

With catch phrases like “polar vortex,” it is easy to think that this year has exemplified that point. However, whether one can definitively link this year’s weather (or even the last few years’ weather) with climate change is fallacious.

“The short answer is no,” Froelich said. “You can’t tie one event to climate change at all. One event doesn’t make a long term trend, one season doesn’t make a long term trend. But if consecutive over 30 year averages” then a trend may appear.

It is unlikely for a researcher to determine that weird weather correlates to climatic shifts, unless a clear pattern presents itself. With online memes highlighting snow storms in the south, misinformation is easy to find.

“The media sensationalizes a lot of things,” Titus said. “I don’t know about that particularly, but snow in the south has happened before. There are different parts of the country that were above normal [in temperatures]. It’s luck of the draw, in some ways.”