Reviews | Until they become the norm, isolated weather events are not enough proof of climate change | Opinion






The intersection of MLK Drive West and Burnet Woods Drive, photographed in January 2022.




One of the most controversial issues surrounding the world today is climate change. Debating its seriousness, or even its existence, has become a topic of frequent discourse, especially in younger people. One of the most common tropes of climate change is the suggestion that a local extreme weather event – that is, any unusual individual attribute, such as temperature or precipitation, that occurs in a small area such as a city ​​- is proof of climate change. The reality is that while climate change is true, a hot day in December or a snow shower in early May is not enough evidence to support it.

Weather is random and forecasting is a data-centric business. A weather forecast is not absolute; rather, it is the result of analyzing large amounts of historical weather data. Now more than ever, amazing tools are available to help meteorologists predict short- and long-term weather conditions over a wide area.

The critical element of this is historical weather data. Record keeping for several weather-related attributes – such as temperature and precipitation – has been ongoing since the late 19e century. By assessing what is and is not evidence of climate change, this data becomes even more important. An outlier cannot be taken by itself to project a future pattern.

What can be used to project a future pattern are large amounts of data spanning several years. In this scenario, a random 70-degree day you experience a week before Christmas might naturally sound like a sign of global warming, but a look at historical temperature data for Cincinnati will tell you it’s not unknown. However, if there were to be multiple 70 degree days in December in each of the next five years, that would be the evidence of climate change you are looking for.

This is true for any outdoor weather event. Very few are unprecedented since record keeping began, and those that are may very well have occurred before record keeping. A quick glance at an almanac, a visit to the National Weather Service (NWS) page for the area in question, or a simple Google search can tell you that the strange weather you are experiencing today has already produced at some point in history.

In other words, the frequency of what are currently outliers is where you should direct your concern. For example, December 2021 saw a record high 232 tornadoes in the United States, shattering the previous record of 98 in 2002. Fueled largely by a catastrophic tornado outbreak which spawned 71 tornadoes in parts of the lower Midwest, many were quick to suggest that bad December was, in and of itself, evidence of climate change.

December tornadoes are not uncommon, however, and average over 30 years before 2021 was 28.1 tornadoes. Every few years there is a December that produces north of 50 tornadoes. This is normal and expected. This becomes alarming when the frequency of the said Decembers increases.

Going forward, it is important to apply this thinking to unique or extreme weather events. It is true that the climate is changing, but it is also true that the occurrence of a single weather event does not demonstrate climate change. This decade will be essential for assessing the rate at which the climate is changing and the impact of these changes. As with forecasts, conclusions will be drawn from at least a decade of meteorological data. When navigating a subject that is a frequent cause of controversy, it is important not only to know the facts, but also to know how to present them. It will only embolden your ability to convince others that climate change – an issue that is tangibly invisible – is a real problem facing us.

About Yvonne Lozier

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