Spring heat wave settles in on US and Canada

A huge, lingering ridge of high pressure over the eastern half of the United States brought summer-like temperatures to North America in March 2012. Image courtesy NASA/EO.

A spring heat wave shattered records across the US and Canada this month and some researchers worry it could be a symptom of sizzling summers and active hurricane seasons for the next few years. And that could be just the tip of the vanishing iceberg:

(NASA/Earth Observatory) — The unseasonable warmth broke temperature records in more than 1,054 locations between March 13–19, as well daily lows in 627 locations, according to Hamweather. Cities as geographically diverse as Chicago, Des Moines, Traverse City (Michigan), Myrtle Beach, Madison (Wisconsin), Atlantic City, New York City, and Duluth, (Minnesota) all broke records for high temperatures in recent days.

Anytime something like this happens people ask if its global warming. Climatologist Michael Mann put it like this earlier today, “I’m often getting asked ‘the crazy warmth this winter and spring, is it climate change or just weather’? The answer I tell them is that it’s both; weather is the random rolls of the dice. But global warming and climate change is loading the dice. And that’s part of why we’re rolling so many sixes lately.”

We could be rolling a lot of sixes in the next few years.

If you look at the NASA global temperature data above you might notice some of the valleys and upticks roughly coincide with the 11 year solar cycle. Some climate change deniers have made hay out of this, claiming the sun is solely responsible for the observed temperature increase over the last fifty years — something known to be false as solar weather and terrestrial irradiance are closely measured by legions of ground and space-based telescopes. The trend is up, but what I’m talking about here is it jumps, almost spiking, at least every decade or so. One reason, among many, for a few of those spikes might be the solar cycle alternately dampening and accelerating the longer term temperature increase forced by the accumulation of man-made greenhouses gases.

Figure 2: TSI Composite and Sunspot Numbers (graph courtesy Greg Kopp). Click image for "global cooling" takedown at Skeptical Science.

Why might the global spikes beat the solar peak? Intermittent events closer to home, volcanoes, large persistent cloud cover and snowfall or the absence of same, throws plenty of volatility into the real data. Why might it lag sometimes? Just as the hottest part of a sunny day happens in the afternoon when the sun has passed its high point and is heading west, the earth continues to absorb any slight increase in solar output after the cycle peaks and begins to wane. The result could be a quasi-decadel pattern super imposed over the short-term jigs and jags and long-term rise we see in the data. That sure sums up the NASA chart doesn’t it?

The last cycle peaked around 2001 – 2002 and could have been one factor in the events of 2004 and 2005, when NASA recorded very hot years and the western Atlantic experienced back to back record storm seasons. The next 12 months will see the sun very near or right at the most active phase of this cycle. If we extrapolate that forward, combined with greenhouse gas forcing, it could well mean a strong potential for record heat waves, record hot years, and record tropical cyclones over the next several years.

Bear in mind weather is complex to say the least, it’s the poster child for chaos theory. Just one example carefully epxlained to me by a climatologists when I was researching this: high pressure overone portion or another in the US during summer could keep the skies clear and thus usher in record heat, but if the system is big enough and lasts long enough, it can also help push large cyclones away from coasts.  These pressure systems, and other phenomena like El Nino, can also directly create wind shear and alter jet streams which create more shear. Shear is when a layer of air is moving in one direction en masse at a specific altitude, but a different one just above or below, and it can greatly interfere with the dynamics at play in the heart of a tropical cyclone which need to build through thousands of vertical feet over several days to really get cranking (A smaller version of something like this may have happened last year with the drought and associated high pressure flowing out of Texas and Louisiana into the Gulf of Mexico). In some cases shear can even tear a cyclone apart after it has reached major hurricane status.

We can hope that dynamic will fend off cat 3 and higher cyclones from forming, or persisting, or help wave them away from making landfall, even if the planet and especially the northern hemisphere are struck with new record highs. But that’s not a sure thing, and even if it works to our benefit for a year or two, it’s just the luck of the draw.

Here’s what keeps some of climatologist friends awake at night: another round of record highs, back to back hottest years and record-breaking storm seasons, and the ocean-wind pattern which set up an unprecedented loss of Arctic ice a few yars ago, could deliver a one-two-three punch so severe it tips the climate, permanently, at least on the time scales of human civilization. A new quasi equilibrium could gel, where not only is every year and every storm season front-loaded to rival the meteorological drama we saw a few years ago, but new weather patterns set up, perpetual droughts in key farming regions, epidemic flooding in normally arid ones. The cryosphere, already under siege, could fare the worst: glaciers become dotted with moulins eating away their icy foundation, buoyed by liquid the ice break its surly bonds with earth and sections of glacier begin to act more like an ice-choked river. Over time this threatens the alpine water/ice reservoirs driving many of the world’s major rivers that serve billions of people. The Greenland ice sheets (And eventually those in Antarctica) pick up their pace, they begin to visibly slide into the sea, smashing delicate chemical and thermal balances between currents and salinity with a massive influx of cold fresh water on a global scale.

This is all speculation of course, at least as far as the single heat wave settling in over the US and Canada for the last few weeks. These weather events come and go every year. Even if we’re on the precipice of something new, it’s all connected, picking a starting point is an arbitrary exercise. But the next few years could turn out to be as good a time as any other. The Russian heat wave of 2010, this latest warm period in the US, and an increasingly active sun could mark the time when the climate tips and truly begins to run away toward the dire scenario many climatologists fear will plague us by mid-century — if we do not make significant changes now — and last for a millennia or more, no matter what we do. One would think, should any of this begin to come to pass, the climate change denial industry would finally concede.

Fat chance. It’s already begun to come to pass by any objective measure. But those clowns haven’t stopped and they aren’t going to as long as their paychecks clear; it’s their job, they aren’t research scientists, they’re PR execs behaving just like an advertising firm, only instead of being retained by Coca-cola to sell soda they’re funded by energy companies and wealthy tycoons focused on short-term earnings and stock bonuses. They’ll just look for new angles, new slogans, and if necessary, new political scapegoats. If the past and present are any guide, a run away climate too extreme to ignore would simply mark the point when the usual suspects execute a spine-snapping Mitt Romney level flip-flop from denying climate change to complaining they’ve tried warn the world about it for decades, but those damn stupid snobby liberals wouldn’t listen and now it’s too late — oh, and now we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by burning every drop of oil and every lump of coal we can.


  1. unbound says

    Media Matters has a great article that talks to the two-faced aspect of these corporations. The specific article talks about how News Corporation (parent of Faux News) started going green in 2007 to stem off the costs associated with global warming. At the same time, the large corporations put on the face that global warming isn’t real when it comes to changing the ways it deals with making their money.

    So, they accept global warming by looking at ways to keep offices more efficient in the face of increasing heat (so saving on costs), but will deny global warming when dealing with oil (so keeping revenue stream strong).

    In the end, it is all about increasing profits for the corporations. Once you understand that, it all starts to make sense.

  2. says

    Whenever denialists point out the uncertainty in predicting climate, it never seems to occur to them that things may just as easily turn out to be worse than what the scientists predict.

  3. geraldmcgrew says

    (Hey DS! Yes, this is the same “Gerald McGrew” who used to post with you over at the old MSN EvC forum.)

    I’ve always figured the denialists’ progression would be something like…

    1) Deny there was any warming at all.

    2) Agree warming is happening, but deny humans have anything to do with it.

    3) Agree warming is happening and that we have something to do with it, but argue that it’s too expensive to fix.

    4) Finally, say it’s too late to make a difference.

    I never really thought about them going full-crazy and later claiming they were for it all along and saying it was the liberals who were the denialists. If they were to pull that off, I’m out…done…going to live in a cave somewhere.

  4. F says

    What if the problem was bubonic plague?

    First, they’d claim it wasn’t happening. Or it’s not that bad (prairie dogs seem to do fine, right?). It’s just a conspiracy of the CDC and WHO to take your money and impose a liberal agenda to take your freedoms away.

    As an outbreak worsens, then it would be that the victims are too poor, or stupid, or their skin is too dark, or God hates them. But it still isn’t happening anyway, and it might be something else.

    As the epidemic spreads, these asshats would be using any prophylaxis offered by medical science and whatever isolation their money could buy. Meanwhile, they’d still claim it wasn’t happening, or not happening to anyone important. If you think there is an epidemic, you should pray so God will spare you but take your enemies – which is what He’s doing anyway, because we are good Christians and Free Market Capitalists. Still, it isn’t happening anyway, so don’t let the CDC tell you what to do or take your tax dollars. But stay away from our armed compounds or we’ll shoot you on sight.

    Wait, now we think there is a complete pandemic, but no, nothing humans did helped it along. You should pray, kill anyone you think isn’t a Proper Christian or Capitalist, and fight harder to get Good Cristian Warriors elected to public office. But fuck you, we got ours.

  5. says

    Hey Gerald! I miss that chat room. It was a great little community, right up until MSN decided to fuck every one over and demand payment. The entire platform went dark, strange business plan …

  6. den1s says

    It got all the way up to 10C/50F here today on the wet coast whoopee. Warmest day of the year.

  7. geraldmcgrew says


    Yeah, I kind of miss the old MSN places a little too, but I always figured MSN would reinvent them in a different format. Instead, they seem to have just gotten out of that business altogether. As you say, strange….


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