March in January! Or is it Mayday?
It's nice out there, but global warming dampens the fun
By Joel Achenbach
The Washington Post
Jan 7, 2007
WASHINGTON - Never has good weather felt so bad. Never have flowers
inspired so much fear. Never has the warm caress of a sunbeam seemed
so ominous. The weather is sublime, it's glorious, it's the end of
January is the new March. The daffodils are busting out everywhere.
It's porch weather. Put on a T-shirt and shorts, fire up the grill,
blast "Rastaman Vibration" into the back yard. Everyone out for
volleyball! The normal high for this time of year is 43 degrees;
yesterday's high at Reagan National was a record-breaking 73. And yet
it's all a guilty pleasure. Weather is both a physical and a
psychological phenomenon. Meteorology, meet eschatology. We've read
the articles, we've seen the Gore movie, we've calculated our carbon
footprint, and we're just not intellectually capable anymore of fully
enjoying warm winter weather. Just ain't right. Ain't natural. Cherry
blossoms during the NFL playoffs? Run for your lives.
"Amazing, but it makes me think we might not be here too much longer,
because of global warming," said Laura Ingoldsby, a grad student
getting ready for a jog on the towpath at Fletcher's Boathouse.
"I think it's a bit scary. It's too warm," said Ellie Motazedi of
Bethesda as she paused during a bike ride.
"Days like this, I worry about global warming, and we're not doing
anything about it," said Coby Dolan, an attorney basking in the
sunshine on the porch of the clubhouse at the Hains Point golf
course. Let the record reflect that he did not appear to be suffering.
At the U.S. National Arboretum, horticulturist Scott Aker has been
keeping an eye on a Magnolia zenii: "The buds are ready to pop." They
mow the meadows in winter when the ground freezes solid, but it's
still soft out there. Last year's petunias are still going strong in
Aker's yard -- and there's no serious winter in sight.
Bulletin: A Washington Post editor nearly drove into a black bear
Friday night in Prince William County. Official word from the
authorities: "Oh yeah, it's so warm, they can't hibernate."
Bulletin: British scientists say there is a 60 percent chance that
2007 will be the warmest year on record.
Bulletin: Ski resorts are struggling to open in the Alps.
Bulletin: Palm trees are growing around a tiki bar in Antarctica.
So maybe we made up the last one. Still, we don't need anyone to tell
us that some computer model in some climatologist's office is showing
that a doubling of atmospheric carbon will lead over the next century
to approximately 3 degrees Celsius warming in the average surface
temperature of the planet, etc. Because we've been outside. We can
detect climate change epidermically.
`Broadly based area' seeing change
What if those climate models are wrong, because they're
insufficiently dire? Everyone's suddenly shifting from models to
observations. Look: Big ice shelf breaking off an Arctic island.
Look: Greenland melting faster than the Wicked Witch of the West.
Listen: Scary quotes from experts.
"Is it really a broadly based area that's seeing particular change?
The answer is yes," says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist with the
National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. "From Europe, the
East Coast, north to the Arctic and across to Siberia, there's a very
large swath of the Northern Hemisphere for the months of September,
October and November that [were] exceedingly warm . . . "
So it's bad. Except for one thing. What you might call, at the
moment, the Denver factor.
Denver got four feet of snow in December. The third big storm blew in
Friday. Snowdrifts of 10 feet! An automobile-snuffing avalanche in a
mountain pass west of town! In Denver, January is still January.
Because what we are experiencing and what Denver is experiencing are
both part of a thing called weather, not climate. Climate change is
real, but it's a background phenomenon, the cicada-song white noise
on the horror-movie soundtrack, distinct from the thuds and screams
and moans of specific weather events.
"It's very dangerous to blame climate for weather," says Richard
Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University. But he
doesn't let climate change off the hook when discussing our warm
"No, we didn't cause it, but we made it more likely," he concludes.
It's like rolling loaded dice in a craps game.
But Dennis Feltgen, a National Weather Service meteorologist, says
climate change isn't the culprit. It's El Niño. Warm water in the
tropical Pacific, changed wind patterns, lots of balmy air blowing
our way from the southern United States.
"We're in an El Niño, which has absolutely nothing to do with global
warming," Feltgen says. "It keeps a lot of the cold air locked up in
Canada, and makes the West Coast of the United States stormy, which
we've seen, and makes the southern one-third of the country wetter
And for some, El Niño is dandy.
"Keeps the hurricanes away and the cold winter away. I'm all for it,"
said Colin Offner, golfing happily at Hains Point.
Bulletin: Cooler weather is imminent. The weather will be almost
normal, briefly, before all hell breaks loose again.