Is Extreme Weather the New ''Normal''?

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By Erica Campbell on November 29, 2012, 3:48pm Last modified: December 3, 2012, 10:11am

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An image of Hurricane Sandy.

One of the questions, I believe, that many people, including the scientific community are asking is whether or not the extreme weather around the globe is now becoming the new “normal.”  Before I continue, let me just say right up front, that there is no definitive answer.  However, I have done research on this topic and would like to explore areas of thought surrounding this subject.

Whenever there is extreme weather, be it here with superstorm Sandy, or what is currently going on across the country (drought in the Midwest and floods in the West), the first answer that comes up as to “why” is it occurring is “climate change” and “global warming.”  However, although it is true that our climate is changing and our Earth is warming (and as some would say at an alarming pace), it isn’t necessarily abnormal.  Throughout the history of our Earth, we have gone through periods of warmth (especially during the time of the dinosaurs) and cold (the Ice Age).  Our climate does go through cycles.  While there is no doubt that temperatures around the Earth have become warmer in recent times, these temperatures may only be partially due to humans and population growth.  The changes could also be merely in weather/scientific instruments, or even reporting/recording procedures and not actual “climate changes.”   

Let’s look at the part about reporting/recording procedures.  We live in a media world, where we get answers to everything instantly through our Smart Phones, Email Alerts or the Internet in general.  There is no longer a “wait time” for updates or alerts regarding weather and weather events.  However, this age of information is recent.  In fact, even in the early 2000s, there was still lag time for getting information out to the public.  The same is true for recording facts and data about weather events.  For example, the deadliest tornado on record, also known as “The Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925” wasn’t even predicted to happen…it would take until 1952 when the world would receive its first actual tornado warning…27 years later.    Our record keeping ability for hurricanes, blizzards and other forms of extreme weather, up until very recent history, was based on homemade weather instruments, and what people simply saw, estimated and/or wrote down.  Many of our records now, such as those involving hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc., are being set, for a large part, because our historical basis is very limited.

Back in the 1970s, the United States was experiencing very cold and snowy conditions.  There was talk of a mini ice age.  Now, we are concerned with global warming…forgetting that our climate was warmer millions of years ago.  In the 1930s, the United States also experienced the worst drought in ages…which led to the Dust Bowl.  The drought in the 1930s was worse than the one occurring in the Midwest now.  Even our own memories could affect what we believe.  Many had been saying and remembering that it doesn’t snow as much as it used too.  Even my Grandmother felt that way, reminiscing about snow so high, they couldn’t see the first floors of buildings from the street.  Well…remember 2011 and all the snow?  I had so much snow at my house, I couldn’t see the first floor from my street. 

Another point to consider with hurricanes and tornadoes…as our population increases, we are moving into areas that are historically affected by these storms.  By moving into these areas prone to hurricanes and tornadoes, there is more of a chance of property damage and loss of life.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the storms are stronger or more frequent, but because people may be living in these areas, where they weren’t before, the effects of these storms are increased dramatically.  H. Michael Mogil, in his book Extreme Weather states, “We expect ‘average’ conditions that we hear on television and other weather reports, but, more often than not, we get conditions that are either close to, or far removed from, these averages.”  He continues by stating, “Thus understanding these complex patterns and how they inter-relate is the key to understanding whether we are in real global warming mode or merely in a period of warming” (pp. 277).

So what can someone, truly looking for answers, really learn from all this?  It is simple…no one knows.  All someone can do is to remember to look at all sides of everything.  Are we warming?   Yes.  Is our “extreme weather” the new normal?  Probably.  But then again, the question still remains as to what “normal” really is.  The best someone can do is to keep an open mind.  For example…if you are outside during a thunderstorm on your phone and you get struck by lightning, was it your phone that caused it?  No…you shouldn’t have been outside…its simple lightning safety.  The same applies to talk of climate change and global warming.  Be careful what you listen to and what you actually hear.  Remember to take into account that we have only recently begun to study the effects humans are having on the climate and on the Earth as a whole.   In weather, “normal” is just the average of extremes and unless the weather and temperature where you are never changes, you can be fairly certain that it isn’t going to match the “average.”

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Erica Campbell

Town: North Haven, CT  

Reporting for WXedge since March 2012.

Articles: 30

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