Turn on the news, and you are bound to hear about “global warming” or “climate change.”
But, it is really hard to understand what they may be talking about when you recall the summer of 1980 where there were 50 days over 100 degrees in 1980 and 51 days over 100 degrees in 2011 while the current summer of 2018 isn’t even close.
The Oklahoma Climatological Survey had a map listing the State’s Mesonet data for January 1 through September 1, and most of the State has had fewer than 10 days where the maximum temperature topped 100 degrees.
Or, when we are dealing with a number of consecutive days below 32 degrees. Yet, we are constantly being told that our climate is changing, and we are supposed to be getting warmer. Our day-to-day empirical data, i.e. what we are experiencing, doesn’t seem to match up with the predictions or prognostications with that of the scientists and experts.
Why? What is going on?
First, there is a difference between weather and climate.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center describes the difference as “weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere, and its short-term variation while climate is the weather of a place averaged over a period of time.” To understand climate, scientists look at averages and changes over periods of years, seven, ten, twenty and even thirty years.
The idea is to look at the changes on a broader scale or on larger cycles, like that of the El Nino or La Nina. Conversely, weather is on a much shorter time scale and may be influenced by more localized factors. Weather forecasters are trying to predict exactly what will happen in the next 24 hours or maybe as far out as a week.
The accuracy of a single forecast, such as the path of a hurricane, or the likelihood of a thunderstorm producing a tornado is based upon current information and models that are used to predict complex interactions. Thus, one might describe the difference between weather and climate as the examination of what is happening to a particular stand of trees in a National Forest. The scale and the overall information, as well as the detail and the ultimate interpretation, may be very very different.
Climatologists are looking at the overall trends. For example, how is the average temperature changing from year to year? In Oklahoma, the summer of 2011 (June-July-August) had an average temperature of 87.5 degrees; this is compared to the summers of 1980 and 1934 which had an average of 85.9 degrees.
But even looking at these “hottest summers” doesn’t really give us a good picture of climate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains the National Centers for Environmental Information. At this site, years worth of data has been cataloged and tracked to allow for monitoring of trends. While the year-to-year data shows a high degree of variability, there is a clear trend in the data. The January-to-July average temperature in 1900 was between 50 to 52 degrees, while since 2000 the temperature range is between 51 and 54 degrees.
There are other changes as well such overall precipitation.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center, as well as other scientific researchers, look at changes in the climate on even longer timescales by looking at ice cores.
This provides us with an even bigger picture as to what may be happening with the climate. By looking at these cores and correlating the information with other historical and geologic information, scientists have been able to examine some potential impacts.
For example, volcanic eruptions can have impacts due to release of gases such as sulfur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere. The big question facing us now relates to whether or not the changes we are currently seeing are due to human activities and whether or not a change in our behavior will have a positive or negative effect.
Editor’s note: This is a series of science-related articles by author Frankie Wood-Black, Ph.D., REM, MBA, to appear in Mid-Week section of the Ponca City News. The author currently runs her own environmental consulting firm based in Ponca City, Sophic Pursuits, Inc., and also serves as a Physics Instructor and the Director for Process Technology at Northern Oklahoma College.