Warmest January, ever

Europe is freezing and the Eastern U.S. just experienced a snow-pocolypse, so surely the whole global warming thing must be wrong, right?

Sorry, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), but global warming is still happening, even though it snowed in January (of all things). According to the latest satellite data analyzed by climate scientist and IPCC member Neville Nicholls, this last January was hotter than any previously recorded January.

It’s not just January, either – it was the entire decade:
>The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in December that 2000-2009 was the hottest decade since records began in 1850, and that 2009 would likely be the fifth warmest year on record. WMO data show that eight out of the 10 hottest years on record have all been since 2000.

It’s hard, sometimes, to accept pervasive trend data as accurate when personal experience contradicts it. In a similar way, you might be understandably skeptical of your town’s assessment that crime is down if you’ve just been robbed and so has your neighbor. It’s crucial, though, to remember that snow storms in winter are weather events, and global average temperature is a measure of our whole climate. No single weather event – including disastrous ones like Hurricane Katrina or the recent blizzards on the East coast – are directly caused by a changing climate. But scientists are telling us that increased warming of the climate can and will lead to more and stronger weather events, both hot and cold.

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  1. geo - March 3, 2010

    I wouold like to see the data. It is the coldest I can remember here in fl.

  2. PaulS - March 3, 2010

    Good analogy. It is precisely the people who have just been robbed that push for more police officers, even tho’ statistics show crime is down in their towns.
    This points to an important suggestion from Arthur Benjamin at a recent TED conference. He says everyone should learn statistics and probability in High School, NOT calculus. If we did, issues like this would be easier to understand.

  3. Jeff - March 3, 2010

    “Warmest Ever January” is misleading. Planet is 5 Billion years old and we have actual measurments (not deductive asumptions)for no more than 150 years. Hard to draw conclusions with such a limited sampling.

  4. Ed - March 3, 2010

    You are right Jeff, the headline is misleading. But the text of the story includes the phrase “this last January was hotter than any previously recorded January”. So I would say the brevity of the headline is at least somewhat made up for with the detail in the story.
    I gather that ice core samples and tree ring data are something short of actual thermometer measurements, but a bit more than “deductive assumptions”.
    Supposedly the amount of snow the US received in January and February did have something to do with global warming and melting glaciers and arctic ice. But it is worth pointing out that it is a big planet, so the US may experience some cooler temperatures than the rest of the world, and it could still be a warm year for the planet.

  5. Woody - March 3, 2010

    Yes, the article title was misleading, but the text got it right–”…hotter than any previously recorded January.”.
    Only 150 yrs. of thermometer records, but also over 600,000 yrs. of Antarctic ice data, thousands of years of tree ring records and hundreds of millions of years of geological records. The thousands of people who spend their lives studying these historical records have come to an overwhelming consensus. The trend is clear…things are warming at an unprecedented rate and it corresponds to our burning of fossil fuels.
    Yes, there have been warmer times in Earth’s history, but with the land masses constantly changing positions on the globe (twice there was a single supercontinent), variable rates of volcanic activity, long and short astronomical cycles as well as occasionally getting whacked by meteorites, etc., of course this is to be expected. The point is that our current human societies have been supported by the climate as it’s been most recently. We would not thrive in harsher climates, hotter or colder.

  6. Sam - March 3, 2010

    I agree. Being able to properly understand and employ such concepts as measurement, error, variance, correlation, regression, causation, inference, and probability can change an individual’s views, if not their life. I would put the need for knowledge of statistics right up there with being able to make change or balance a checkbook.

  7. michael - March 3, 2010

    Burning fuel is just part of the condition…there are other human activities aiding the warming and there are natural processes at work as well. In addition, our record sampling is much more accurate than it was 150 years ago.
    …we have a park in the Southwestern US spewing an estimated 1,000 tons of CO2 into the atmoshpere everyday…this is a fairly new event…as an example of a natural process that doesn’t get press.

  8. Maggie Wolfe Riley - March 3, 2010

    I haven’t been paying attention to the temperatures recorded in the eastern US “snowpocalypse,” but in my experience (not valuable statistically – just a personal observation that may or may not be supported by actual fact), it often snows most when it’s closest to freezing – when it’s really cold it doesn’t seem to snow as much, or as heavily.
    That observation aside, statistics show that the majority of people don’t understand statistics, and not only that, but an even larger majority apparently don’t understand the difference between climate and weather. I wish *everyone* could just look at the data instead of believing their favorite political commentator about this – often liberals are just as stupid as conservatives when it comes to the “it’s hot/cold where I am so global warming must be true/false” argument. It’s not a political issue – I mean, it IS, because of action/inaction surrounding it, but if we could separate that, and just look at it objectively… in these days of completely separate news networks for differing political views, however, that seems impossible. I’m really worried about us ever being able to truly communicate and listen to each other and get anything done again in our ever heating *political* climate!
    One more semi-random thought – I wish the name “global warming” hadn’t been coined for this climate change event – even though it is accurate, with the scientific illiteracy of the populace, “climate change” would have been much less of a political hot button. Whatever you call it, though, whatever you attribute it to, that change is occurring, and occurring at a frighteningly rapid rate – I hope we can do something about it because hope really does spring eternal, but I fear when it’s finally obvious to everyone, it will be far too late.

  9. Carl Johnson - March 3, 2010

    Every time you call it “global warming,” a phrase that was abandoned by the scientists investigating it back in the early ’90s, you feed into the politically motivated doubters (not all are politically motivated, of course), who use any evidence that it’s not hotter than normal today to show that this all must be imaginary. The issue isn’t warming, it’s climate change — more energy driving more extreme events, and those extremes go in both warmer and colder directions. It has always been theorized that while global average temperatures would increase, there would also be increases in cold weather storm events as well.

  10. michael - March 3, 2010

    Statistics can be, and are massaged, even by ‘professional’ scientisits. I can point to several key difference between the IPCC and others.
    The messages can be confusing when scientists do not appear to agree, but this is normal and healthy so long as it is not politically driven…
    The media are at fault, I think, for propigating misinformation and there is no shortage of green profiteering and greenwashing.
    What are the humans catylists? What are the natural catylists?

  11. Helen - March 3, 2010

    Here in southern British Columbia we’ve had a very mild winter. I’ve been keeping track of how soon my flowers start blooming. We’re about two weeks ahead of most previous years and a few days ahead of a couple of years ago when it was also very mild.

  12. Bry - March 3, 2010

    Coldest in fl…But warmest in Ontario Canada…Author makes the point.

  13. mariet - March 3, 2010

    It’s not that everything will be the warmest, it is that there are weather anomalies. Snow in unlikely areas, warmer in normally cold areas.

  14. Bob Meredith - March 3, 2010

    I like the phrase ‘global weirding’ The climate is going to get weird. This winter is a good example.

  15. Jake Brown - March 3, 2010

    I tend to agree that statistics is mis-understood by most people.
    This lack of understanding means people trying to convince people of things will prey on that to misconstrue statistics in ways to show their beliefs in the best light possible.
    This causes a feedback loop where people lose trust in any practicality of statistics in general, and they decide that statistics is junk math and ignorable.
    Worse, what we are learned is probably the wrong things for what is useful. People learn how to create a standard deviation, but they never learn what a Margin of Error means, or what a probability distribution function is. I remember finally learning about them in college, and seeing real-world examples. One great example was a carpet-bombing raid from WWII mapped on a grid on a map, and how the pattern matched a particular probability distribution very closely. It was eye-opening when you saw it to say, hey I can use this math to predict something as seemly chaotic as 100 bombers flying over a city 50 years ago without guided projectiles onto a city, and predict what will get hit and what won’t.
    Having learned quite a bit of statistics myself, I find that it’s often not very hard to figure out when someone is trying to fool you and when they aren’t.
    I had a conversation about the value of statistics with people where I work (all smart talented people), and mostly all I got back from people was platitudes like “There’s lies. Damned lies. And then there’s statistics.” …perhaps I stated my case poorly, but nobody budged in agreeing that learning statistics was a valuable life skill.

  16. michael - March 3, 2010

    I apologize, this is my thrid reply.
    We should understand the limits of statistical analysis when used to predict weather and climate. Statistical models cannot predict the free association that takes place between all of earth’s systems…how often have have anyone of us said to a friend, we want the weatherman’s job…because? How can he still have a job if he is always wrong? Well, he is not always wrong, if you step back far enough. And so it is with climate prediction, you have to step back far enough so you don’t trip over some of the details. Earth’s climate is changing for sure.
    If I got caught up in one of the models I looked at I might throw my hands up in the air and say the whole thing is poppycock; some of the information had to be skewed to get the correct numbers…what was skewed? Temperature, of all things.
    Step back and look at the big picture. Because we may lack the power to foresee thru technology, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t our eyes.

  17. rich - March 3, 2010

    In northern California, we’ve observed much greater variance in day to days conditions. It’s not unusual for us in the winter to have periods of days or weeks of either warm, sunny days or bitter cold (to us at least, in the teens :-) , but we’ve had many one day swings from warm to cold and back again, almost like an environmental ping pong game.

  18. Jake Brown - March 3, 2010

    Weathermen get a bad reputation more from weather reporting than from poor analysis.
    Meteorologists have more sophisticated models and understanding than we give them credit for.
    We see a report that says “3-6 inches of snow”. What that really means is ‘there’s a 40% chance you’ll get between 3-6 inches of snow, a 30% you’ll get 0-3, and 30% you’ll get 6+. there’s a 3% chance the storm will stall out on a high pressure off the coast and it’ll dump 15-20 inches on you. and a 15% chance it’ll miss completely, and hit the people just north / south of you.’
    this happens several times a year as each storm moves through.
    once in a while the unlikely happens and it snows 18 inches, and people are like ‘THE WEATHERMAN IS OUT TO GET ME’. the next week the another storm move through but this time the storm misses 60 miles to the south and the same guy is like ‘THESE PEOPLE ARE MORONS.’ meanwhile some other person who lives 100 miles to the south who got the 15 inches this week says ‘THE WEATHERMAN IS OUT TO GET ME.’ they blame the weather guy.
    but hurricane reporting is different. they give you that cone that predicts where it should go on a map. people don’t complain about that.
    hurricanes are easier because they’re so powerful they overcome general system interactions.
    its the weaker interactions that are hard to predict because they’re evenly matched with each other. …like, you watch the super-bowl because there’s tension from not knowing who is going to win, , but there would be no excitement to watching a game between an NFL team and a high school football team.
    anyway – its these weaker interactions that drive most of our weather day-to-day. and that’s why its hard to report on.
    the weather man can say ‘Sure – its going to snow. We can see the snow falling 100 miles west of you. It’s falling at about 1/2 an inch an hour. But will it snow EXACTLY where you’re standing? Or will it miss 15 miles north?’ well, you get into middle ground probabilities where you’re going to be seen as wrong frequently because the news talks about weather in absolutes when it really isn’t. The meteorologist knows that – but somehow it gets lots between them and what you hear on the news.

  19. michael - March 3, 2010

    Oh I give the scientific community a lot of credit…but models cannot predict free association. We shouldn’t fault the weatherman or climatologists.
    It should be clear that modeling is a crude and imprecise tool but when we mix in politics, bad reporting, adgenda driven accounting, greenwashing or greenprofiteering we shouldn’t wonder why we are a wee bit perplexed.

  20. parrish - March 3, 2010

    A slight aside, but useful, I think. The Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting (www.metcalfinstitute.org) has put out a wonderful booklet COMMUNICATING ON CLIMATE CHANGE, the report of a series of workshops between the nation’s top climate scientists and leading environmental journalists. It addresses both groups deep frustrations with how climate change was being (or not) communicated to the general public, the goal being how to improve the communication by a beter understanding of each other’s professional constraints and methods of research and discussion. Fascinating reading – has made me much more tolerant of each groups limitations and problems.

  21. John K. - March 3, 2010

    You are correct. The coldest days usually have 100% sunny blue skies. Cold air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air. In the summer it’s the “dewpoint” that most affects our comfort level.
    I’ve been a weather buff for years. Most people (including the media) don’t have a clue when they talk about weather/climate.
    John K.

  22. SherryD - March 15, 2010

    We are still waiting for the summer of 2009, here in Manitoba, Canada. (I know, time to give that one up as a lost cause.) It was cold, windy and raining the whole time. However, for the first time in more than 10 years, we had no snow at Halloween and it stayed warm well into November. December gave us a bit of a cold snap, but from there on we’ve had a warm winter overall. I, for one, am not complaining.

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