Has Our Nasty Winter Ended Global Warming? We Should be So Lucky

Professor Bruce E. Johansen

Global Warming Graphic

Nasty winter, eh? Enough to make some of us question the association between sanity and a Nebraska address. La Vida Buena, anyone? I could use a transfer to the University of Nebraska at Key West.

I’ve had more than one person greet my little lecture about the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ with gentle suggestions that I could drown myself in a pothole. I’ve read triumphal letters to the editor in the Omaha World-Herald suggesting that we all burn up more oil in low-mileage SUVs to warm the place up and prevent a new ice age. The lower the mileage, the better, they argue. Forget carbon footprints. Burn fossil fuels, be happy!

We should be so lucky.

Our local cold and snow has been shaped by atmospheric collusion of El Niño in the Pacific Ocean (usually a warming influence), and the Arctic Oscillation, a high-pressure system over Greenland that opens the gates of the Arctic in middle and eastern North America. While El Niño gooses the storms by providing more warmth and moisture, the Arctic Oscillation provides cold air here. The result: what we got this winter—back-to-back blizzards and near-record cold. While we were shivering, Greenland’s temperatures were above average.

CO2 and Temperatures Still Rising

The fact is that as long as the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps rising, climate change is right on track. Weather, which is still very changeable, is fooling some gullible contrarians.

Meanwhile, at the Winter Olympics near Vancouver, B.C., snow was imported to skiing venues with helicopters and trucks. It’s too warm for natural snow. Is anyone ready to ski in the rain?

And the weather’s been just as extreme ‘down under.’ In Australia this past January (during their summer), the temperature reached 106 F. in Sydney and 108 in Melbourne. The hot wind was blowing record highs out of the interior of an increasingly dry, fire-ravaged continent.

NASA reported in November, 2009 that the July through October period of that year, world-wide, was the warmest on the instrumental record. During the decade 2000-2009 in the continental United States, record high temperatures for individual dates occurred twice as often as record lows. From January 1, 2000 to September 30, 2009, 291,237 daily record highs and 142,420 record lows were recorded, according to a National Center for Atmospheric Research study led by senior scientist Gerald Meeh, in Geophysical Research Letters.

Our local chill here in the Midwest was abnormal in a worldwide context. The 2000-2009 decade also was the warmest on the instrumental record worldwide—a third of a degree warmer than the 1990s. That’s a large amount in decadal recordkeeping, “providing fresh evidence that the planet may be warming at a potentially disastrous rate,” according to the National Climatic Data Center. The year 2005 was the warmest on record, at 1.11 degrees above average.

2000-2009 Warmest on Record

The past decade, in fact had the two warmest years on record, according to NASA. 2009 was the second warmest on the instrumental record (since 1880), after 2005. James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that global temperatures varied because of changes in ocean heating and cooling cycles. “When we average temperature over 5 or 10 years to minimize that variability,” said Dr. Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, “we find global warming is continuing unabated.” The NASA data indicated a temperature rise of about 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit (0.2 degrees Celsius) per decade during 30 years.

Because of melting polar ice, the Kodiak-Kenai Cable Co. is planning this year to lay a $1.2 billion fiber-optic cable across the Arctic between London and Tokyo. The new route, called ‘ArcticLink,’ is half the distance of other cable lines and will cut the transmission time almost in half, from 140 to 88 milliseconds.

Mass loss from glaciers along the coasts of Greenland and Antarctica are accelerating faster than expected and contributing to sea-level rise, according to a late 2009 report in Nature by Hamish D. Pritchard and colleagues. Accelerated ice flow or what’s called ‘dynamic thinning’ (measured by high-resolution laser altimetry that maps changes) reaches all latitudes in Greenland, has intensified on key Antarctic grounding lines, has endured for decades after ice-shelf collapse, penetrates far into the interior of each ice sheet, and is spreading as ice shelves thin by ocean-driven melt.

The National Climatic Data Center said in September, 2009 that sea-surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere for the summer of 2009 worldwide were the highest on the instrumental record, since about 1880. Cyclical El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean contributed to temperature rise, but the temperatures were above previous El Niño peaks. The summer 2009 average was 62.5 degrees, 1 degree above the 20th Century average.

Thus, while the contrarians react to transitory changes and scoff at ‘climate change,’ nature is actively telling a different story.

Bruce E. Johansen is a professor of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of Hot Air and Hard Science: Dissecting the Global Warming Debate and the two-volume Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology.

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