Are our winters really getting shorter?
As nerdy as this blog post is, I felt compelled given that it has rained quite a bit the last couple days and is raining as I write this.
Curious as to whether our winters are really declining in snowfall amounts and severity, I finally took it upon myself to do some digging to see what I could discover. Through the www.NOAA.gov website, I obtained data dating back to 1922 for Albany for the daily rainfall amount(including snow melt), snowfall amount, observed snowfall on the ground for each given day as well as high and low temperatures. Here are my observations and interpretation:
I have no idea why I am an English major and not an atmospheric science major.
In the first year of complete data (1922) (other useful data starts in 1903--I'll get to that later) I already came across two -10 degree low temperatures. I don't think we've had -10 in at least a few winters now (-5 maybe, but not -10) Nevermind, two days in 2003 with a low reading of -12 and -16 reading for Jan. 28th, 2005. Also, from January 4th 1923 until March 13th of the same year there was observed on all days at least 3 inches of snow and throughout most of January there was more than a foot and nearly all of February around one foot (11-13 inches most common daily observed snow depth on the ground) with march seeing significant snow cover for the better half of the month. I did find a very similar winter recently: winter of 2002-2003 and the period of uninterrupted snowfall cover began sooner than the 1923 example and ended at very near the same time (3/15 vs 3/17 for 1923). Looking at the data closely, I have to conclude the data are not different enough to draw any kind of conclusion whatsoever. If anything, the 2002-2003 winter was more impressive.
other random data:
8/16/1922 had a high temp of 94F
7/23/1923 saw a high temp of 94F
7/30/1933 saw a high temp of 100F
7/09/1936 saw a high temp of 103F
I did not find high temps of the like of 100+ elsewhere in the data. In fact, scanning more than ten years back I didn't see one mid 90s reading. The highest I saw going back more than ten years was a couple of 94 readings (two days back to back in 2007), a 96 in 2001, a 95 in 1999. For 1998 temp never reached above 88 and there was a 99 in 1995 with 5 or more degrees cooler for the two days immediately before and after.
as far as winters being duds 1932 was a mild one, saw only a couple wimpy snow falls and most of the time observed 0 inches or a trace of snow on the ground for the entire winter. 0.5 inches of snow for all of December, the most single snowfall for January was 3.5 inches with only a total of 5.3 for the month. February saw a few more 3 inch snowfalls and if it wasn't for a late season snowstorm at the end of March of 14 inches, it would have been a truly abysmal winter.
It should also be noted that Boston and New York in recent years set snowfall records. Boston in 2003 set an all time snowfall total for a given month, and then again this year broke total snowfall record for December. In 2004 Central Park set a snowfall total record from a single snowstorm by I think 1/2 an inch (26.9 inches) It was the snowstorm I missed because I was in Cali for Ana Sophia's birthday. And regretted not flying home sooner and hanging out in New York with Sol. (You remember that snowstorm, eh Sol?)
Perhaps better data to look at for indication of whether winters are getting worse is to look at data for Washington D.C. or New York but it's very tedious to sift through the data.
Another important indicator, perhaps the most important in my reckoning, is how much rain/snow melt there is in the winteriest months of December, January, February and March; more important, perhaps, than snowfall totals as that data can better show an indicator of a warming trend. (The warmer it is the more precip will be measured in melted form than frozen.) Since it can snow at any temperature below 32, and winters in Albany see 0 degrees regularly, if there had been an average increase in temp by 2 degrees in the last 100 years, it wouldn't have that great an effect on frequency of snowstorms or snowstorm amounts, but only increase the number of cusp storms to produce more water than snow/ice precipitation (as I am experiencing right now as it is raining.)
So let's do a little observational experiment. I'll look at the last ten winters (December 1996 to December 2007) and the first ten winters (December 1903 to December 1914) (rain/snow melt data goes back to 1903) and count the number of months among December, January, February and March to see how many of those months have rain/snow melt greater than 3 inches. Remember, the greater the rain precipitation combined with snow/ice melt indicates more warm temperatures. We'll also compare the total amount of rain/snow melt between the two periods. A preliminary look indicates to me more rain/snow melt for the period 1997-2007 than 1903-1913 although I did see a winter month within the period of the beginning of last century having 6 inches of rain/snowmelt. But I'm going to hypothesize that to be an outlier (a fluke) and not indicative of an overall trend for that period.
and the results:
1904-1914 had a total rain/snow melt of 92.08 (The outlier ended up not being in this section of data, but later on)
1997-2007 had a total rain/snow melt of 128.05 inches which is 39% more rain/snow melt.
However, just from scanning the data for all months it appeared all the months in the earlier period were dryer than the recent years. This data also does not take into account la niña or el niños.
Although it just occurred to me by the end of March all the snow will have melted by that time anyway. So removing March from the data totals, let's compare:
66.77 inches for beginning of last century vs. 90.57 inches from last decade, which is 35.6% more vs 39% more with the original set of data. I think this method was actually pretty inconclusive of any indication of a warming trend.
After scanning over all the data I cannot conclude that there has been a significant change in climate or winters. Just now looking at a random year (1926) I saw a 102F temp. Remember I scanned 12 years from 2007 to 1995 and the only remarkable temp I saw was 99F. And now I find another 100+ just by luck and not searching for it. (The next day the temp dropped 20 degrees.)
So are our winters getting worse? From the perspective of skiers, not wussies. I cannot draw any conclusion from this thorough waste of time. The only thing I can conclude is that it seemed a little dryer for the first decade of last century and 100+ temps seemed slightly more common 50+ years ago than they have been in the past decade. The number of Julys and Junes in the 1920s and 1930s with less than an inch of precip is quite common. Whereas lots of 6+ inches of rain in Junes and Julys in the last decade, including one incident of 11 inches of rain in September of 1999 and a couple months with 7 inches each. The winter of 1935-1936 saw less than twelve inches of cumulative snow for the entire winter and the biggest single snowfall dumped a whopping 4.8 inches... speaking of dry... and duds. I dunno, I might be inclined to say there are more weather extremes now as well. The winter I just mentioned wasn't that dry- it saw 4.5 inches of wet precip. Was a pretty mild winter, but no 60 degree readings. Just lots of 40s. It seems now we see 60 more frequently. Owner of ski resorts (like the former owner of Catamount who is an old timer) would probably be able to offer some insight on whether winters have gotten worse and warmer. Speaking of extremes, March 22 and 23 both hit 80 degrees in 1938. You know, it's interesting, I'm really not seeing a significant pattern. That same year September saw 10.33 inches of rain. September seems like a wet month. It also got down to 1 degree in November 26th. 64 Degrees February 20th, 1939. 1940, Xmas day 51 degrees. No snowstorms in 1942. I classify a snowstorm as 6 inches or more of snow at one time. Winter of 2005-2006 did not get below freezing. 1930 saw 101 degrees. The coldest it got in the winter of 1931-1932 was 8 degrees and that was in March (8 degrees warmer than the coldest it was in 2005-2006.) June, July and August saw 100, 100 and 101F degrees respectively. Ugh... the next thing I really should do is compare high temps for the winter months and low temps for the winter months. The data table does tell me that info for each month (I only just realized, because when I am scrolling down I cannot see the headings for each of the columns) I've checked all the way back to 1990 and still only that one 99F degree day. A 97 one as well, but no 100s. All the other 100s I've been finding in the 1930s etc I'm just seeing without searching for them. 1988 was hot with a 96, 99 and 97 for June, July and August. I'm all the way back now to the early 80s and nothing approaching 100. So in the last 25 years the temperature has not hit 100 degrees in Albany. Yet in the first 30 years it did so on more than 5 occasions without me even searching for such instances. Yet December of 1933 saw -21. I doubt I will find a single -20 in the same 25+ years I searched for one 100. We'll start with 1977, the year of Star Wars. -13 for 1977. -19 for 1979. In fact, this year brings to my attention another key factor. Not just the severity of a deep freeze but the longevity of one. In the year of my birth it was below freezing for nighttime lows a consecutive 10 nights, seven of those nights in the double digits below zero, five of which were consecutive. In 1980 it hit -20 (there goes that theory :P) Short lived cold snap tho, only 2 nights of sub-zero. However, the following month (January) of the same season (year 1981) saw -16 and 4 consecutive days of sub zero and 17 consecutive nights of 10 degrees or below 10. Furthermore, from December 12th to January 22nd (nearly six weeks) there were only six nights above 10 degrees with single digit lows continuing to dominate until middle of February at which point double digits won out and remained double digits for the remainder of the winter. The next year saw another fairly bad cold spell: 22 consecutive nights of 10 or below except for one night of 13 and another of 11 with a max low for the period of -11. Reason I point this out is because I think from 1995 and onward we did not have many sever cold spells like the ones I'm illustrating here. -20 the following year was seen. 1987 sees -15 with two different cold snap periods of 0 or below for 5 and 6 consecutive nights (both including double digit sub-zero nights) The following year saw 1 1/2 weeks of single digit lows with double digit sub-zero nights sprinkled in there. The entire month of December of 1989 was hovering around zero for nighttime lows with only 9 nights barely staying in the double digits. The following year, 1990 was much more mild with no appreciable cold snaps. '93 and '94 saw a handful of nights in the single sub-zero range. 1995 saw -18 but only brief cold snaps. -19 for 1996 and 2 weeks of 10 or colder nights with all but four of those zero or less. January of 1998, the coldest month of that winter, saw 24 nights not get out of the double digits with some nights as warm as 41 degrees. For the entire month (again, the coldest month of that winter) only three nights were single digits, with First Night being -7. February of that year was very similar with many nights remaining in the 30s. 1999 saw one isolated -10 otherwise lots of double digits and only a small smattering of single or sub-single digits for the winter. January of 2000 saw 18 consecutive days of single and sub-zero single digits except for one 11 degree night with a low for that winter of -9. The following year of terror fails it with only four consecutive nights in the positive single digits and no nights reaching zero or colder. 2002 was even worse with only two consecutive nights in posative single digit territory and never going below zero. In fact only 4 nights dropped below double digits for the entire winter. 2003 redeems itself somewhat with lots of single sub-zero nights. A low for the winter of -12 on two separate occasions and 19 nights of single or sub single digits (including the two nights of -12 already mentioned) and 3 nights of those 19 in the low double digits. 2004 was similar with a low of -13. 2005 -16 on two separate occasions otherwise not quite as many sub zero or low single digit nights as '04 and '03. The best winter of 05-'06 can manage is an unconvincing smattering of low single digits. '06-'07 manages to just scratch below the surface of zero but compared to those -20 winters of the late 1970s and earlier, fageddaboutit. Old man winter ain't holding on like he used to. Losing his grip as it were. Old man winter... you're getting old.... Getting tired of blowing from yonder north pole and his arctic blast just ain't reaching as far as it used to.
Let's go up now, from 1977.... End of February 1976 sees 67, January sees -16. '75 = -17. '74 = -14 twice and -13 but none of these years are managing the death grip of '79. '73 = -21. 6/11/72 drops down to 37. -16 for '72. June of '71 sees 38. '71 sees six nights of double sub zero with an ultimate low of -28. And nearly 3 months of 8 inches or more snow pack with 5 snowstorms of 10 inches or more. 1970 June sees 39 degrees. Well, I'm beat, maybe I'll continue this tomorrow. If this last bit of data is arguing for less severity of cold in the last 15 years, here is an interesting counterpoint:
Al Gore says global warming is a planetary emergency. It is difficult to see how this can be so when record low temperatures are being set all over the world. In 2007, hundreds of people died, not from global warming, but from cold weather hazards.
Since the mid-19th century, the mean global temperature has increased by 0.7 degrees Celsius. This slight warming is not unusual, and lies well within the range of natural variation. Carbon dioxide continues to build in the atmosphere, but the mean planetary temperature hasn't increased significantly for nearly nine years. Antarctica is getting colder. Neither the intensity nor the frequency of hurricanes has increased. The 2007 season was the third-quietest since 1966. In 2006 not a single hurricane made landfall in the U.S.
South America this year experienced one of its coldest winters in decades. In Buenos Aires, snow fell for the first time since the year 1918. Dozens of homeless people died from exposure. In Peru, 200 people died from the cold and thousands more became infected with respiratory diseases. Crops failed, livestock perished, and the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency.
Unexpected bitter cold swept the entire Southern Hemisphere in 2007. Johannesburg, South Africa, had the first significant snowfall in 26 years. Australia experienced the coldest June ever. In northeastern Australia, the city of Townsville underwent the longest period of continuously cold weather since 1941. In New Zealand, the weather turned so cold that vineyards were endangered.
Last January, $1.42 billion worth of California produce was lost to a devastating five-day freeze. Thousands of agricultural employees were thrown out of work. At the supermarket, citrus prices soared. In the wake of the freeze, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked President Bush to issue a disaster declaration for affected counties. A few months earlier, Mr. Schwarzenegger had enthusiastically signed the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, a law designed to cool the climate. California Sen. Barbara Boxer continues to push for similar legislation in the U.S. Senate.
In April, a killing freeze destroyed 95 percent of South Carolina's peach crop, and 90 percent of North Carolina's apple harvest. At Charlotte, N.C., a record low temperature of 21 degrees Fahrenheit on April 8 was the coldest ever recorded for April, breaking a record set in 1923. On June 8, Denver recorded a new low of 31 degrees Fahrenheit. Denver's temperature records extend back to 1872.
Recent weeks have seen the return of unusually cold conditions to the Northern Hemisphere. On Dec. 7, St. Cloud, Minn., set a new record low of minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. On the same date, record low temperatures were also recorded in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Extreme cold weather is occurring worldwide. On Dec. 4, in Seoul, Korea, the temperature was a record minus 5 degrees Celsius. Nov. 24, in Meacham, Ore., the minimum temperature was 12 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the previous record low set in 1952. The Canadian government warns that this winter is likely to be the coldest in 15 years.
Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri are just emerging from a destructive ice storm that left at least 36 people dead and a million without electric power. People worldwide are being reminded of what used to be common sense: Cold temperatures are inimical to human welfare and warm weather is beneficial. Left in the dark and cold, Oklahomans rushed out to buy electric generators powered by gasoline, not solar cells. No one seemed particularly concerned about the welfare of polar bears, penguins or walruses. Fossil fuels don't seem so awful when you're in the cold and dark.
If you think any of the preceding facts can falsify global warming, you're hopelessly naive. Nothing creates cognitive dissonance in the mind of a true believer. In 2005, a Canadian Greenpeace representative explained “global warming can mean colder, it can mean drier, it can mean wetter.” In other words, all weather variations are evidence for global warming. I can't make this stuff up.
Global warming has long since passed from scientific hypothesis to the realm of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo.
David Deming is a geophysicist, an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis, and associate professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.