Environment Picture

Climate or weather?

Freakishly hot March illustrates need to communicate the difference
Communicating climate change—particularly in an era of doubt and misinformation—can be daunting. March’s record-setting heat wave—which has since shaped up to be the official hottest spring on record in places like Ann Arbor—was a case in point. MEC’s Brad Garmon handled the potential connection to climate change deftly in a March blog post on MEC’s Michigan Distilled site. This is an edited version of Garmon’s analysis.

I’m a scientist by training. I know the difference between climate and weather. So the fact that it’s supposed to hit 87 degrees today, March 21, in Lansing, Michigan, and that my neighbors are mowing their grass, that the trees in my yard are sprouting fresh new buds, and friends have been slapping mosquitoes? That’s weather.

Weather is what’s happening now; climate is the larger trend that shapes the weather. So this freakishly strange heat wave. That’s weather. But it’s weather weird enough to make even professionals flounder for words. As my local weatherman Jake Dunne told his Facebook followers: “Once again I am at a loss for words after making the forecast. . . . Folks, we are in the midst of a HISTORICAL run of weather... an event that will put March of 2012 in the record books, not to mention a month that will be talked about for decades.”

And as my colleague Hugh McDiarmid said the other day: “Summer temps in March were fun for a while. Now it’s just getting plain creepy.”

Pam Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences, Stanford University, and chair of the National Resource Council Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change, was in town last week, reiterating that the science on climate change is in: It’s real. It’s largely human-created.

She’ll be the first to admit that we don’t know exactly what all it means, or how some systems like the permafrost in the boreal forest or the ice sheets will respond. But most of the scenarios don’t seem as much fun as a backyard barbecue in March in Michigan.

The National Weather Service recently reported that 2011 was the 35th consecutive year with global average temperatures above 20th Century averages. Now, that’s climate.

Lest you think this is just a bunch of environmentalists trying to take the fun out of an 87-degree second day of spring, take a look at other folks who have amended their practices and strategies to respond to our changing climate. Like the Arbor Day Foundation. Or the Red Cross. Or the military. Or the insurance industry—whose job is assessing risk. Even local farmers. I heard that some Michigan carrot growers selling to Gerber baby food in West Michigan are buying land farther north to move their crops and keep up with the shifting climate zones.

Is this streak of record-breaking temperatures across the continental United States directly attributable to global climate change? Not definitively.

But to paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, if you’re seeing the weather pattern I am and not pondering the larger trends of climate change, then you’re not paying attention.

So yes, pull out the grill and enjoy an early spring. That’s weather. I’m going to enjoy it.

But don’t ignore that creepy feeling in the back of your mind either. Embrace science. Don’t be afraid to start thinking about how a spring like this twice or three times (or more) a decade will feel. Or what it will mean for ecosystems, communities and economies. Or our Great Lakes.

Start reading up on this stuff; it’s going to happen more often in the decades to come, whether we like it or not.
-Brad Garmon is director of conservation and emerging issues at the Michigan Environmental Council.
RELATED TOPICS: climate change
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