Weather Blog

Global Warming updates -- on the 4s!

Global Warming updates -- on the 4s!
Originally published Feb. 24, 2010: This winter has been a picture of contrasts: Our record warmth in January, versus the record snowfall back east. There have been days when Seattle was warmer than Miami and days we were as cold as Buffalo.

For more proof of the wide extremes this winter, check out this contrast: On Feb. 19, a thermometer at Hoseda-Hard in Russia's interior recorded a temperature of -70F -- the second coldest reading ever recorded in Europe (just missing a -72.6F in 1978. Read all about it here, provided you speak Italian or use Google to get a rough translation.)

But just down the planet a ways, the temperature near the border between Niger and Nigeria in Africa recorded a whopping 112F degree reading, just 3 degrees shy of the all-time Northern Hemisphere record for highest February temperature (which is 115F in Chad.)

Now, if you were unlucky enough to be in Hoseda-Hard on Friday, you might be thinking to yourself: "It's 70 below zero outside -- so much for all those Global Warming doomsayers!"

Meanwhile, those in Niger might be thinking at the same time: "113 in February? Global Warming is here!!!"

It's just one of many examples where we hear people either proclaiming global warming is here and proved or is a farce, based on one event in one location, as opposed to something that would affect a global average, not local average. Some parts of the media were particularly galling in claiming during the record 1-2 punch snowstorm in D.C. earlier this month proved Global Warming was false. Others point to the lack of snow in Vancouver during the Olympics as proof it's coming.

Now, you might be thinking: "Scott has lost his mind. He's doing a blog entry that mentions global warming."

But not only am I doing a blog entry mentioning global warming, but I'm going to tie it in to your daily commute! How's that for bold (crazy?). Now, before we get going, my intention here isn't to declare one way or another whether global warming is coming or a big farce. The science of climate change is incredibly complex and goes beyond forecasting the next 7-10 days, which is more my realm of meteorology. Ask a day-to-day forecaster about overall climate change, and it'd be like asking your foot doctor to take a peek at your latest EKG.

But a foot doctor can still recommend things like eating right and exercising for a healthy heart, so here is my contribution to the global warming debate: One thing is for sure, individual extreme meteorological events are not indicative one way or the other about global warming. Even in a warming planet, it still might snow occasionally in Houston.

It just might snow less often…

"So, what was that about global warming and my commute? I bet I can blame it for making red lights shine my way more often!"

Not exactly. Here's my analogy:

Every day when you commute around the Puget Sound area, your commute is rarely exactly the same each time. Conditions such as weather, day of the week, holidays and accidents or stalls and traffic volumes will add variance to your travel times.

One day, your commute from Everett to Seattle might take you 37 minutes. The next day, 35, and maybe 41 the next day. Now, it's generally believed the population of the Puget Sound area will continue to grow and a likely result is that more and more cars will be on the roads and thus, traffic will gradually get worse unless something is done to mitigate extra traffic volumes, be it widening roads, adding buses, raising gas prices, tolls, building mass transit, etc.

But one day, there's an accident on your way home, and it's blocking the two right lanes (and, of course, it's the one day you forgot to TiVo Wheel of Fortune). Your commute takes you 75 minutes.

To tie it into the "D.C. Snowstorm means global warming is false" analogy, you would go home and declare that you will now be 30 minutes late every day from here on out because your 37 minute commute is now over an hour and you might as well give up on ever seeing Pat Sajak again.

You then march right down to the DOT and demand they immediately widen the freeway to 12 lanes and bulldoze over half of Shoreline and Mountlake Terrace (oh wait, they already are in Mountlake Terrace) to tackle this outrageous 75 minute commute.

Or, thinking the other way, if one day through some aligning of the stars, your morning rush hour commute is 15 minutes shorter than usual, you decide you can from now on, set your alarm 15 minutes later in the morning.

Then you march right down to Sound Transit and tell them their mass transit programs are no longer needed and you can scrap all that expensive bus service and HOV lanes because traffic is no longer an issue since traffic now flows at 64.9 mph all the way into the city.

Seems silly and shortsighted, right?

Instead, the theory of global warming in this metaphor would be that traffic times would gradually increase over time. So that what is a 37 commute today under similar circumstances 5 years from now would be a 40 minute commute, and then a 43 minute commute in 10 years, etc.

You'll still have days when individual events might make the commute 75 minutes, and days when the commute is much quicker than normal, only perhaps now your "quick" commutes are 33-35 minutes as opposed to 29-32 minutes. And your long commutes are 80-85 minutes instead of 75 minutes.

You can certainly have serious debate over measures to fight increasing traffic times: Wider freeways, more roads, better bus service, expanded mass transit options, incentives for carpooling.

But one event does not a policy change make, and the same goes for weather and global warming. There are so many other factors in play besides global warming itself --El Nino/La Nina just being one of a huge laundry list of atmospheric events that can affect short term climate (and is a primary factor in this winter's warmth here and record snow back east) -- that weather and climate will always have its peaks and valleys. The fact that Seattle hit 103 this past summer which shattered its all-time record high doesn't mean global warming is here. If Seattle hits 103 five summers in the next 10 and what used to be 2 days of 90+ weather a year gradually becomes 3-4, that would be an indicator. It's the overall long term average that is the key.

Now, putting on my Ken Schram hat and giving some personal commentary: A whole lot of influential people who have no background or business talking about global climatology or even science are making very public opinions that many people take as solid fact. And what is or is not fact has become so muddied that the science community itself can't agree on a lot of critically important issues.

Add in that it's human nature to resist a change in lifestyle for something that is not immediately tangible and you've got a hard sell, either way. If this were, say, scientists saying a meteor was going to strike the Earth in 2029 and we needed to start a plan right away to push it away, I think the globe would rally behind the cause. But on something this nebulous and theoretical, I think it is going to take some tangible events before the issue is seriously tackled.

Like, say, having to set that morning alarm 15 minutes earlier, just to get to work on time :)

(Special thanks to UW Research Meteorologist Mark Albright for finding the tidbits about the cold Russia morning and hot African day)