There seems to be some confusion out there about weather vs. climate. For example, a Virginia Republican Party video urged citizens to call their Congressmen and tell them how much global warming they got during the big snowstorm a couple of weeks ago. But that doesn’t really make any sense. In simple terms, weather determines whether you need to take an umbrella with you today; climate determines whether you need to own an umbrella. Weather determines whether you need your down coat today; climate determines whether you need to own a down coat. Weather determines whether you turn on your air conditioning unit today; climate determines whether you own an air conditioner. Weather determines whether the plants in your garden have a good day; climate determines what plants will likely thrive in your local environment.
Climate is the long-term average of weather. Weather changes all the time; climates are generally fairly stable, allowing us to make long-term decisions based on the notion that the future climate will be like the past. One unusual weather event does not mean the climate is changing. But many unusual weather events could mean the climate is changing. And climate change will mean that on average, the weather we will have in the future will be different from what we had in the past. That could even mean that record-breaking snowfall events happen more and more often in Virginia and Washington, D.C.
ANCHORAGE - "Hello. I'm a Republican, and I believe in climate change." These words opened a presentation at the Alaska Forum on the Environment and indicate that, here in Alaska, issues surrounding climate change have often transcended the partisanship that sometimes dominates the issue 3,000 miles away in Washington.
This bipartisanship has evolved because probably no place in America is the evidence of climate change more clearly on display than in Alaska. Climate change’s leading edge is in the Arctic, and temperatures in Alaska have risen 4 degrees or even more depending on location. With warming and its impacts visible to all and being increasingly analyzed on a local level, discussions of climate change, especially as it relates to adaptation, take on a tone all too unfamiliar inside the Beltway.
Here in Washington we’re waiting for the snow to end and Congress to make progress on a comprehensive climate and energy bill – both can’t come soon enough. And although the federal government has been closed here for the past few days, the past few weeks have seen some significant progress by federal agencies on the climate front.
As part of an effort to lead by example, President Obama announced that the federal government will reduce its greenhouse gas pollution by 28 percent by 2020. Federal agencies have been working on developing their targets since the release of President Obama’s Executive Order 13514 on Federal Sustainability in October of 2009, which requires agencies to set a number of measurable environmental performance goals. This target is the aggregate of 35 agency targets and the Obama Administration believes it will “reduce Federal energy use by the equivalent of 646 trillion BTUs, equal to 205 million barrels of oil, and taking 17 million cars off the road for one year.” Later this year federal agencies will be setting targets for their indirect GHG emissions (looking for GHG reduction opportunities with vendors and contractors, implementing low-carbon strategies for transit, travel, and conferencing, etc.).
We’ve also seen indications that the impacts of climate change are to be formally considered in the operations of two prominent federal agencies. The Pentagon released a long-term strategy that for the first time recognizes climate change as a direct threat to U.S. forces. In the Department of Defense (DOD) Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Report–the legislatively-mandated review of DOD strategy and priorities—the agency noted that climate change will affect DOD in two broad ways. First, it will shape the operating environment and missions by acting as “an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” And second, that DOD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities and military capabilities and will need to work to “assess, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change”.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has announced that companies should disclose to investors the potential risks and opportunities that climate change presents for their assets. Although the guidance is not a formal regulation, the SEC intends for it to “provide clarity and enhance consistency for public companies and their investors”. In addition to the physical impacts of climate change (floods or hurricanes, rising sea levels, water availability, etc.), examples of where climate change may trigger disclosure requirements include the impacts of climate legislation and regulations, international accords, and indirect consequences of regulation or business trends.
These recent developments, along with the President’s clear commitment to climate change and energy policy during his State of the Union address last month are very encouraging.
Speaking of making progress, its time for me to get back to shoveling snow.
Heather Holsinger is a Senior Fellow for Domestic Policy
In the past few weeks I’ve posted twice (here and here) on reasons why global warming could be increasing the frequency of heavy snow events in certain parts of the United States (and likely in other similarly situated places around the world).
In a recent post on his WunderBlog (Weather Underground Blog), Dr. Jeff Masters gives his take on this issue. Dr. Masters is co-founder and Director of Meteorology of Weather Underground, a weather service that provides real-time weather information via the Internet. Unlike me, he’s a real weather expert and I highly recommend his blog.
- On the occasion of the Commerce Department's Proposal to Establish a NOAA Climate Service -
Statement of Eileen Claussen
President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
February 8, 2010
It is clear that impacts from climate change are already being experienced across the United States and that our ability to manage and adapt to these changes will benefit from a comprehensive, coordinated Climate Service. The creation of a central clearinghouse in NOAA will help answer this critical and growing need for trusted information and resources.
Pew Center Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146
Click here for NOAA press release
The cold weather continues across much of the Unites States, Europe, and central Asia as the Arctic Oscillation remains in a strong “negative” state, forcing cold Arctic air down to the mid-latitudes. A couple of weeks ago I explained why more frequent heavy snowfall events could be a consequence of global warming for mid-latitude areas near large bodies of water, like Washington, D.C., and Syracuse, New York (see figure).
|The average amount of annual snowfall has been increasing in Syracuse, New York, for most of the past century. (SOURCE: Increasing Great Lake–Effect Snowfall during the Twentieth Century: A Regional Response to Global Warming? Journal of Climate vol. 16, pp. 3535-3342, Figure 1)|
On January 31, I noticed a forecast for lake-effect snowfall around the Great Lakes on Weather.com: “Lake-effect snows are also possible near the central and western Great Lakes today and tonight.”
90th American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting
Dr. Jay Gulledge explains why scientists must improve their assessments of risk in their analysis of climate change. He speaks on the need to integrate more of the social sciences like anthropology, demography, and psychology in order to understand where humans are most vulnerable.
Source: Clean Skies News
On December 19, Washington, D.C. was buried by two feet of snow, setting a new record for snowfall during the entire month of December and paralyzing the city for three days. As my neighbor and I shoveled out from the storm, he stopped for a moment, grinned, and asked, “So what happened to global warming?” Boy was he surprised when I said, “Glad you asked,” and launched into a 15-minute oratory on why global warming might mean more, not less, extreme snowfall for some parts of the world.
Before continuing, I need to reiterate that no single weather event can be attributed to global warming. So the question here is not, “What caused the heavy snowfall on December 19?” The question is, “Is heavy snowfall or unusually cold weather inconsistent with global warming?”
You need two things to create heavy snowfall: moist air and cold air. The two generally don’t occur in the same air mass because cold air can’t hold much moisture. So you need two air masses, one that is warm and moist and one that is cold and dry, to collide with each other. That is exactly what happened over the Mid-Atlantic region on December 19.
This condition is not only consistent with global warming, but it can be expected to occur more frequently in certain places as a direct result of global warming. It takes warmth to generate moist air. First, you need warmth to evaporate enough water from lakes or oceans to generate a massive snowstorm. Second, you need warm air to keep the water vapor aloft so that it doesn’t rain out before it finds a cold air mass to collide with. When I asked weatherman Joe Witte where the moisture that ended up in my snow shovel came from, he said, “Some of the moisture came out of the Gulf of Mexico AND some from the warm Atlantic ocean with the VERY warm (70s!) Gulf Stream along the East coast acting as a hot plate for evaporation of moisture into the cold dry air.”
|(SOURCE: NOAA polar-orbiting satellite data compiled by Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observation Lab)|
Although the past few weeks have been very cold in the eastern United States, Joe pointed me to NOAA satellite measurements that found sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean to be 1 to 3 °F warmer than normal during the week before the big snowstorm hit (see figures above). There is strong scientific evidence showing that, on average, the oceans are warmer today than they were a century ago because of human-induced global warming. So the warm ocean temperatures that fed the heavy snowfall are consistent with global warming. In fact, because of global warming, we should expect such conditions to be more common today than in the past and even more common in the future as warming continues.
So where did the cold, dry air come from? Global warming is about changes in long-term averages and not about single events; it does not mean an end to cold weather. Instead, it means that cold weather will become less frequent and hot weather more frequent when averaged over decades. In fact, both of these trends have been observed over the past 50 years in the United States and globally. So, even with global warming we will have cold winters, just fewer of them. It is also important to remember that a cold winter here doesn’t mean a cold winter everywhere. In fact, many parts of the world, including the Arctic and the tropics, are having an unusually warm winter. The current cold snap is concentrated in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and there will always be the potential for cold Arctic air masses to visit the mid-latitudes from time to time.
The current cold snap is related to a known weather pattern called the Arctic Oscillation. When the Arctic Oscillation switches between “positive” and “negative” states, it simply shifts heat between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. Scientists call this kind of pattern “internal variability,” and it does not change the total amount of heat in the climate system. Internal variability can create strong differences in the weather from year to year and place to place, but these shifts average out to zero net climate change over decades. Only a net change in the total amount of heat in the climate system can change the long-term average climate, and that is the nature of global warming.
When the mid-latitudes get periodic blasts of cold Arctic air, global warming makes it more likely that the cold air from up north will collide with moist, warm air from down south, creating more heavy snowfall events in mid-latitude areas near large bodies of water. A similar phenomenon is affecting the Great Lakes region. Syracuse, New York is one of the snowiest places in the country, but it and other areas around the Great Lakes are getting even snowier! Because the Great Lakes are getting warmer, they are icing over later and melting earlier than they used to. Without the ice, water can evaporate and enter the atmosphere over the lakes later in the fall and earlier in the spring. When winds blow this moist air over the land where temperatures are lower, we get the famous “lake effect” snow. With more open water during the winter, more lake effect snow is falling.
These are the cold facts of global warming.
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Program Manager for Science & Impacts
Domestically and internationally, climate action in 2009 laid critical groundwork for potential breakthroughs in Congress and global negotiations in 2010. Yet with an issue as complex and political as climate change, turning groundwork into policy is a challenge. 2010 will undoubtedly be a pivotal year for climate change – but first it is instructive to take a look back at what happened in 2009 and how that shaped where we are today.
We captured these highlights in our annual Year-in-Review Newsletter – a useful compilation of 2009’s big climate change stories and related insights. The year’s major domestic action included passage of the landmark House climate and clean energy bill along with numerous Obama administration efforts to improve our climate and economy. These accomplishments included the stimulus bill’s $80 billion in clean energy-related funding and EPA actions, including the endangerment finding, the greenhouse gas reporting rule, and stricter auto-efficiency standards.
Copenhagen consumed international climate attention in 2009, culminating in the pre-dawn hours of December 19 when final touches were put on an accord directly brokered by President Obama and a handful of key developing country leaders. While many questions remain after Copenhagen, our summary of the conference provides a sound starting point for grasping what transpired at the year’s largest climate event.
The lead-up to 2009’s main events required a great deal of work, and some of the year’s highlights include the detailed Blueprint for Climate Action released one year ago this month by the influential business-NGO coalition U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). More industry leaders also showed support for mandatory climate action by joining our Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC). And efforts to reach business communities, employees, and families expanded through the Make An Impact program. In partnerships with aluminum manufacturer Alcoa and utility Entergy, we continue to provide individuals with strategies to save energy and money while protecting the environment.
We continued to educate policy makers and opinion leaders, producing reports, analyses, and fact sheets on topics ranging from clean-energy technologies, climate science, competitiveness, and adaptation. Featuring expert insights and thoughtful opinions, we informed broad audiences about the immediate need for climate action. And our timely, relevant work moves forward in 2010 as we seek progress in addressing the most important global issue of our time.
Tom Steinfeldt is Communications Manager
Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation
January 8, 2010
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), The American Geophysical Union (AGU), The American Meteorological Society (AMS), The Ecological Society of America (ESA), and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change held a briefing on climate change impacts and adaptation.
Click here for a video of the event.
Human-caused climate change is well underway and almost certain to continue in the decades ahead. Comprehensive risk management strategies will include efforts both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and to enhance society’s ability to cope with climate impacts (adaptation). Mitigation and adaptation often get mistaken for competing, mutually exclusive alternatives when they are really complimentary approaches with differing strengths and limitations. This briefing will examine the nature of climate impacts occurring within the United States, and explore options for dealing with those impacts.
- Thomas R. Karl, Director, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center; Lead, NOAA Climate Services; and President, American Meteorological Society
- Kristie L. Ebi, Executive Director, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 2 Technical Support Unit - Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability
- Katharine L. Jacobs, Executive Director, Arizona Water Institute; and Professor, University of Arizona Soil, Water and Environmental Science Department
- Susanne Moser, Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting; and Research Associate at the University of California-Santa Cruz Institute for Marine Sciences
Moderator: Paul Higgins, Senior Policy Fellow, American Meteorological Society
Click here for a summary of speaker remarks and biographies.