New NOAA Data Shows Just How Abnormal Our Climate Has Become

May 7, 2021 | 11:37 am
Torley Linden/flickr
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

Two seemingly disconnected announcements over the last few weeks are giving us a glimpse of what “normal” looks like right now in terms of our climate. In reflecting how profoundly we’re altering our climate system, NOAA’s new 30-year “climate normals” clearly show how “normal” ain’t what it used to be. And the latest report from the International Energy Agency reminds us that “normal” isn’t always a state we should be longing for. In fact, we should be pushing back hard against what’s normal right now to give our kids some semblance of a recognizable climate in the future. Here are four things to think about when considering what a “normal climate” means.

NOAA’s new “climate normals” show just how far we’re pushing the planet

Every 10 years, NOAA produces a set of what are called “climate normals,” which you can think of as average climate conditions over the previous 30 years. Despite their name, the latest update makes clear that the conditions we’re living with are hardly normal.

Until early this month, the 30-year averages scientists used spanned the time period between 1981 and 2010, basically the climate that millennials grew up with. The new 30-year averages step forward in time to the childhood years of Gen Z and represent conditions from 1991 through 2020.

The new annual average temperature map below shows that much of the country is now significantly more than 1°F warmer than the 20th century average. And the decade-by-decade progression of warming makes clear that the 1991-2020 average is part of a long-term trend being driven by human activity.

NOAA’s new climate normal for temperature during the 1991-2020 period (bottom right) is significantly warmer than both the 20th century average. One can see the warming of average temperatures, particularly since 1961, in each of the decadal updates NOAA has produced.

While the new annual precipitation map isn’t as clearly alarming as that for temperature, it, too, shows large changes compared with the previous 30-year average and a clear departure from 20th century averages. While much of the country east of the Rockies has seen a 10 percent or more increase in precipitation compared with the 20th century average, the Southwest—and particularly Arizona—has become significantly drier.

Our climate is hotter—and either wetter or drier depending on where you live—than it has been for the last 120 years.

NOAA’s new climate normal for precipitation in the US shows that the 1991-2020 period was significantly wetter for much of the eastern half of the country compared with either the 20th century average or the 1981-2010 average. One can also see the pronounced drying the Southwest has experienced in recent years.

The world is returning to pre-pandemic emissions levels

Just as NOAA’s new climate normals were announced, the International Energy Agency released its annual Global Energy Review, which assesses global emissions and energy demand. This year, the report makes projections for what emissions levels will look like in 2021 as the world inches toward a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. While we won’t have 2021 data for months, IEA makes troubling predictions for 2021 emissions, including “Demand for all fossil fuels is set to grow significantly in 2021. Coal demand alone is projected to increase by 60% more than all renewables combined, underpinning a rise in [energy-related CO2] emissions of almost 5%.”

As scientists have been speculating since early in the pandemic, when it became clear that stay-at-home orders around the world were reducing air pollution and heat-trapping emissions, a return to pre-pandemic patterns is expected to cause emissions to rebound as well. That’s because we’re getting back to what has long been considered “normal:” taking ancient carbon stored underground for millions of years, pulling it to the surface in the form of fossil fuels, burning it for energy, and releasing that carbon into the atmosphere where it heats the planet. And that’s to say nothing of what constitutes “normal” in our food system (I’m looking at you, beef).

Despite how profoundly we are altering our climate, we’re bouncing right back to pre-pandemic energy use because that’s what’s “normal.”

Just because it’s “normal” doesn’t mean it’s good

A couple of years ago, I was invited to a small town in Oregon’s beautiful Umpqua River Valley to give a presentation about sea level rise. The afternoon before my presentation, the organizer of the event gave me an amazing driving tour of the area. A retired biologist who devoted his career to understanding, restoring, and conserving salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, my host introduced me not just to the region as it was in that moment, but also to the place it had once been.

As he described it, portions of the Umpqua River were long home to very diverse wild salmon populations. (And if you’ve been to Oregon or Washington, you know that salmon is central to local—and particularly local Indigenous—culture.) The populations of some salmon species have been declining swiftly. At least one species has gone extinct, and at least one other is at risk of the same.

These declines are partly due to land use practices that have greatly altered aquatic habitats. Large-scale hatcheries that are introducing different genetics to the wild salmon population are also playing a role. He recalled a time when catching wild salmon in the Umpqua River was easy and common. Now, young and old people alike, he said, are just pleased that they have anything to catch in the river—wild or not—and don’t seem to mind the change.

In other words, the shift that he experienced and saw as a tragic loss was something that most people, not knowing any different, saw as normal.

Recent research by Frances Moore and colleagues suggests that it’s not historical periods that form our internal baseline of what is normal when it comes to climate. Rather it’s our experience with weather in recent years. So when young people delight in catching non-salmonid species in the Umpqua River or don’t bat an eye at smoky skies in September, it’s likely because such events are no longer as noteworthy as they’d be to their parents or grandparents…they’re part of what’s expected.

But learning to expect climate events that once would have been exceptional doesn’t lessen their harm. As Moore’s research points out, as with the classic “boiling frog” effect, social normalization of climate extremes could make it more difficult for us to truly recognize the danger of the climate crisis.

“Normal” doesn’t begin to describe where we are. We need new words.

NOAA, the World Meteorological Organization, and the climate science community have long used the terminology of “climate normals” to describe long-term, steady averages in our climate system. For decades, the choice of the word “normal” was a benign one and there was little difference between the idea of “normal” conditions and “average” conditions. But those were very different times—times in which the communications of climate scientists weren’t critical to public discourse and we could expect some semblance of stability in our climate system. Neither of those hold true today.

Our climate system has, in many ways, broken free from what one could realistically describe as a stable, normal state. It is not normal to have 44 consecutive years of above average temperatures. It is not normal for hurricane after hurricane to undergo rapid intensification or for wildfires to jump over freeways.

Without truly transformative changes to human society as we know it, where we are now won’t last long enough to simply be a new normal—it’ll just be a snapshot along a steadily worsening trajectory toward an unrecognizable climate future.

At the same time, the words scientists and scientific organizations use to describe current climate conditions matter more than they ever have before. The scientific community’s continued use of the word “normal” says to the public “This is how things are, and this is what’s normal.” A more accurate term might be “climate averages,” but the science community could also go a step further and call these averages what they really are: climate abnormals.

Toward a new and better normal

Our planet is overheated. Our emissions are bouncing back from record declines. And while those of us in relatively well-off countries may be able to insulate ourselves from the changes that lie ahead, our continued inaction could condemn millions of people around the world to a dangerously—even lethally—hot future.

But the past few weeks have not just brought into focus the sorry state of our climate. On Earth Day, in announcing a national pledge to reduce emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the Biden administration committed to what will hopefully usher in a new era in the US—an era of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels; building out the infrastructure, systems, and workforces we need to power our society with clean energy sources; and centering the need for environmental justice in everything we do.

Further warming, further alteration of the climate is assured given the work we have ahead of us in driving emissions to net zero. But the US’s new stance on climate, combined with record levels of growth in the renewables sector in 2020 despite the pandemic, suggests that a new normal is within our reach—one that would ensure that our climate stays truly normal.

About the author

More from Kristy

Kristina Dahl is principal climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she provides scientific direction, strategic thinking, and technical and analytical expertise for the climate team as well as across UCS campaigns and programs. Her research focuses on the impact of climate change, particularly sea level rise and extreme heat, on people and places.