A 'Nice' July - in March

By Bruce E. Johansen

Describing the heat wave across the eastern two-thirds of the United States at the end of March, weather watchers nearly ran out of adjectives. Across the U.S. in March, more than 7,000 record highs were set, 25 for each record low. During the third week of March, the temperature broke 90 in Michigan. It hit 91 in Omaha March 31, April 1, and April 2—a spectacular 40 degrees above average. It was 67 at 6:00 a.m. April 2, a usual mid-summer morning. March ended 16 degrees above average in Omaha, a record.

Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Tampa, Washington, D.C. and many other cities set records for the month of March. The month set a record for the country as a whole. Even International Falls, Minnesota (which is usually notable for icebox metaphors) hit 79 degrees F. Chicago hit 87, and Detroit 86—both record highs for the month.

What About Summer?

With temperatures peaking 40 degrees above average in Omaha at the end of March, a flaming global-warming advocate would be tempted to ask: What about summer? The average high around here in mid-summer is 88. That plus 40 is 128. Omaha’s all-time high is 114. In my 30 years here, I’ve felt 109 twice, and that was plenty hot for everyone.

In meteorological terms, the record warmth was the result of a ‘blocking high’ over the western Atlantic Ocean and Eastern two-thirds of the United States—a giant dome of stagnant air that forces the jet stream northward and sucks warm air from the south. Our worst heat waves in summer result from this pattern, as did the lethal heat waves that enveloped much of Europe in 2003 and Russia in 2009.

A summer high of 128 degrees in Omaha is not likely, first because the pattern may change; secondly, because the humidity that usually characterizes our summers holds high temperatures down during afternoons, even as it pushes the heat index up. That same humidity holds night-time temperatures up. So while 128 degrees in the shade is not probable, 110 may be, with an absolutely miserable heat index—if the blocking high remains in place. Drought also would be possible under these conditions, punctuated by a few periods of intense (and hydrologically nearly useless) storminess.

So, while accumulation of greenhouse gases most certainly plays a long-term role in our March heat wave, it is also a weather episode—an important one, and the kind of thing that will become more likely as global warming intensifies.

The reach of our prodigious warm spell was not universal. Alaska had a cold winter, even for them. Earth Observatory sent me a picture from space of pack ice surging southward through the Bering Sea, driven by a cold Arctic wind. Kabul had a cold, snowy winter, as did much of Russia’s enormous land mass. Europe got a piece of that one, as well. When I visited Seattle during the third week in March, snow fell in the suburbs, a few hundred feet above sea-level, capping an unusually cold, snowy, and icy winter. Seattle was stuck in December long after we reached July. On March 23, when the sun came out for an entire day and the temperature reached 57, nature’s brief change of heart was front-page news in the Seattle Times. After that, the cold rain returned.

Spring Six Weeks Early

When I arrived in Omaha the next day, however, the magnolia in our yard was dropping flower petals. The Bradford pears were exploding in bloom, and the high temperature was hanging around 80 again, after a week of this two weeks previously. A redbud that my wife bought as a memorial to her sister Mimi because it bloomed in early May (she died May 5) was in full bloom by March 20. A story in the Omaha World-Herald March 26 noted “the early emergence of ants, ticks and even mosquitoes.” Exterminators were quoted on the early appearance of termites—like the rest of this weirdly early spring, four to six weeks early.

The cocky grackles were back, pushing the smaller, more courteous sparrows from our bird feeder. The blue jays returned. Usually, these are all April fare. Spring had suddenly been advanced a month. And what was that jingle I heard on the street in the third week of March?—the popsicle man trolling for some early action, up with the flowers.

The warmer days felt like July, and people were beaming: “Nice day, eh?” It was dry heat, without the stupefying humidity of summer. A friend from Wilmington, Delaware, who is a gardener, but not a climate scientist or activist, wrote on March 20: “It is a very nice and warm weather. Forsythias and daffodils are out. Magnolias are already finished blooming, dogwoods are on.”

I’m sure the skeptics will continue to remind us that one month of weather does not make an enduring global trend. They are partially correct, of course. But evidence forms patterns, and it accumulates. These people will be denying that human greenhouse-gas emissions are a problem down to the last ice cube. Of course they will. One clinical definition of insanity involves repetition of the same failed motion ceaselessly, without reference to reality. Some of them are being paid to lie. The ones who are not being paid are merely insane.

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