Freakish Winter Warmth: It's Not Not Global Warming

December 21, 2015 | 11:22 am
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

Let’s talk about December 2015. In the interests of brevity—and so you can get away from this screen and outside where the weather, odds have it, is probably flipping gorgeous right now—I’d like to step through a brief montage of recent examples from around the nuzzlingly warm eastern U.S. and get to the point:

This warmth is due to several things, including global warming.

Some recent coverage has muddied this point, so let’s help with the clean-up.

Freakish warmth: t-shirts first, questions later

People are golfing and mowing lawns in Wisconsin. They’re gawking at cherry blossoms in Philly and D.C. My family recently played touch football in t-shirts on a field dotted with dandelions.

Day after day, popular outdoor spots in Northeast cities are transformed into a sea of naked arms, hatless heads, and the occasional bare chest, even as Christmas festoonery blinks incongruously nearby.

Santa, in an enigmatic move, was spotted water skiing in ice-free, snow-free, cold-free Buffalo, NY, and Coon Rapids, MN. My kids are saying things like “it’s practically CHRISTMAS!!” and “What the HECK??” And no one in my house has touched a mitten in weeks.

Santa water skiing

A friend and I recently traded notes about the previous night, when she had narrowly avoided the squashing of a non-hibernating frog, and I had squashed a non-waiting-for-spring-to-be-born mosquito.

The nightly news is covering black bears in New England who have put off hibernation to molest bird feeders. Bulbs are sprouting like its springtime and my March-flowering quince is December-flowering.  There are scattered reports of birds acting badly: like the half-dozen species of warblers, who should by now be as far South as Central America, observed lingering on in Maine and thus courting death. And there are reports of monarch butterflies, as if they didn’t have enough problems, emerging in December in several New England states, briefly. Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, because migration is for suckers.

December warmth

Here are some children I know on a recent mucky-warm day in Ipswich, MA, not a mitten in sight.

These things are due to the fact that it’s freakishly warm out there.

Freakish warmth by the numbers

We’ve all experienced unusual warm spells. But these numbers help explain the unique nature of recent warmth.

  • Warmest autum: “Meteorological autumn,” September through November, was the warmest for the lower 48 states since record-keeping began 121 years ago, and the warmest globally, in the 1880-2015 record, smashing the record set just the previous year.
  • Hottest months: Recent months are setting records individually as well. The top three warmest months on record globally (measured by NOAA in monthly departures from the 20th century average) are:

    1) 0.99°C, Oct 2015 (the “greatest departure from average of any month in the 1,630 months of record-keeping.”)

    2) 0.97°C, Nov 2015

    3) 0.91°C, Sep 2015

    records broken

    In all, “nine of the first eleven months in 2015 have been record warm for their respective months”, reports NOAA. And we have yet to count December, which is still steaming away.

  • Record-breaking days: In recent weeks, across the eastern half of the U.S., thousands of local records—nearly 6,000 as of  December 18—have been broken, some by wide margins and some dating back to the 1800s. In terms of daily record highs, these records were broken just last weekend:
    • Lexington, Kentucky, saw 70 degrees, breaking a record from 1873
    • Joplin, Missouri, at 72 degrees, broke a record from 1907
    • Cleveland shattered its 1949 record by a full 7 degree
    • Washington, D.C., and Detroit both broke records held since the 1880s
    • Dubuque, Iowa, broke its 95 year-old record by 5 degrees
  • Record-breaking nights: New York City set a daily record high at 64 degrees on December 12. Three days later it set a new one at 68 degrees—at 2:03 a.m. Many other locations saw new daily high records set in the middle of the night. My weather app told me to expect 60 degrees at 3 a.m. the other night. In Massachusetts. In December.
  • Wide margins: From the Plains, through the Midwest and South, to the Northeast, temperatures clocked in at 20 and 30 degrees above average—more like October days (wait, see previous bullets; scratch that)—and for days at a time.
  • No snow in sight: Famously snowy Buffalo, NY, recorded no snow until last Friday—something it hasn’t done since 1899. And there is little in sight for many states that are normally snowy in December.
  • Warmth through the holidays: Weather forecasts for much of the eastern U.S. point to a very warm Christmas.Christmas warmth
  • What to expect in the new year?  Accurately predicting what happens next this winter is very hard, given the big and only partially-understood dynamics at play. For more, check out this post from my climate-scientist colleague, Brenda Ekwurzel, who outlines the key indicators that scientists will be watching this winter.

What’s going on?

It’s warm and snowless because of El Niño and the Arctic Oscillation AND global warming.

Some recent coverage has muddied the connection and disseminated the idea (mainly through poorly worded headlines; unlike mine) that this heat is not the result of global warming. But of course the vital underlying fact is that we’ve already created a good deal of warming (1 degree C, as of these past months), globally, and so the climate phenomena that play out on the world stage today—like this Oct-Nov El Niño, the third hottest since 1950; and this fall’s warm Arctic, the highest land temperatures north of 60 degrees North since 1900—are inevitably playing out on top of, and being influenced by, these altered conditions.

The specifics of what’s happening where El Niño, Arctic dynamics, and underlying warming meet are, in a word, complex, and scientists are actively discussing how things might play out. But the collective bottom line recognizes that global warming plays a role.

NOAA’s Deke Arndt puts it this way, as reported by the Guardian: “Long-term climate change is like climbing a flight of stairs: over time you get higher and higher. El Niño is like standing on your tippy toes when you’re on one of those stairs. Both of those together work to create the warmest temperature on record. We would not be threatening records repeatedly if we had not climbed the stairs for decades.”

NOAA ytd global surface T anomalies

In an illustration of how we’ve been climbing the stairs and are now standing on our toes with this El Niño, this graphic compares the year-to-date temperature anomalies for 2015 (green) to what were the six warmest years on record (2014, 2010, 2013, 2005, 2009, and 1998; in red) and to all other years in the 1880-2015 period (in black). See this NOAA page for more interesting info.

Studies suggest that global warming will cause the formation of more extreme El Niños. But whether it’s possible to pin this unusually strong El Niño or the ongoing behavior of the Arctic Oscillation on climate change, doesn’t diminish the role of climate change in what we’re experiencing, as the stairs analogy communicates.

2015 is the hottest year on record by a wide margin, topping 2014. 2014 became the hottest year even in the absence of El Niño. We’re climbing the stairs, picking up pace, and taking some two at a time.

So. Whatever we want to call December’s freakishly warm weather, whatever we’re tempted to call the punishing cold and snow that could follow, we ought not to leave out the global warming propping it all up.

It’s a confusing time, but we’ll make a little more sense of it all in the New Year. In the meantime, peace. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

It’s a confusing time, but we’ll make a little more sense of it all in the New Year. In the meantime, peace. Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried

Feature image: Tori Behr/Flickr