Extreme Winter Weather–Groundhog Day Edition

January crocuses in Maryland. Credit: Dan Klotz

When is partly cloudy and 70 degrees Fahrenheit considered extreme?

When it happens in Washington, D.C., on February 1st and the temperature ends up more than 25 degrees above normal. To be fair, no weather records were set yesterday and we average about one 70 degree day every other February here at the nation’s capital. But it has been mostly warm all winter, and my neighbor’s crocuses were confused enough to bloom.  Can you imagine how the groundhog felt today?

Despite the heat, the question of climate change is still being debated in the public theater.  Last Friday, 16 scientists signed an opinion piece that ran in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” In the back and forth that ensued, it turns out that half of these scientists have connections to the oil and gas industry.

Stepping back and looking at weather patterns, we can see that climate change—the issue formally known as global warming—is starting to take hold.  Climate scientists are very careful not to point to any one weather event as proof of climate change, but in looking at the overall data, they have no doubt that the planet’s weather is changing and said so in a letter rebutting the skeptics.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, pointed out that 2011 had the most extreme weather since the agency had been keeping track. The criteria was the number of weather disasters  generating more than $1 billion in damages and last year had 14.

Aside from physical and financial damage, extreme weather generates collateral damage as well.

Torrential rain—followed by dangerous floods—wash off fertilizer and manure applied to crops.  This fertilizer and manure runs off the fields and into streams, which drain into larger bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River and Lake Erie. When there is too much fertilizer in the water, algae grows too fast and sucks up all of the oxygen in the water, creating a dead zone.

While farmers are trying to better manage how they apply fertilizer, once a nasty storm hits, most of the fertilizer has to be reapplied. Advocates including Suzy Friedman, deputy director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Working Lands program, can point to progress in smarter uses of fertilizer, but she notes that “climate change and the more extreme weather it brings makes it much harder to manage fertilizer.”

For example, the late summer dead zones in the upper Chesapeake Bay have been decreasing, as I pointed out before, thanks in part to more efficient farming practices. But after Tropical Storm Lee in September—which generated more than $1 billion in damages and caused 21 deaths—the dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay reached its largest expanse ever. The previous record was set a few months earlier, at the beginning of the summer.

Climate change means more than just extreme weather, though. New maps released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that the winters are getting warmer and the limits for what you can plant in your backyard have changed.  Despite USDA assertions that the maps should not be used as a tool to measure climate change, it is difficult not to make that assumption when my azaleas are blooming in mid December.

The balmy weather ended last night and today, Groundhog Day, feels more like late March with temperatures in the mid fifties. I’m not sure what this will mean for the tulips in my backyard, which have just started to emerge. Perhaps the groundhog could have stuck his head out a little longer to provide some wisdom—ironically enough, he went back into his hole, suggesting that we would have six more weeks of “winter.”  One thing is certain; it wasn’t a shadow of a doubt on climate change that scared him.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.