Baby It’s Cold Outside, But Keep Your Eyes on the Climate

By Tom Yulsman | February 10, 2014 10:56 am
Polar outbreaks animation

This animation shows how surface temperatures departed from the long-term average between Jan. 1 and Feb. 6, 2014. (Individual images from NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

For the United States, it certainly has been a shockingly unusual winter so far, with Alaska baking, much of the lower 48 states shivering — and a broad swath of the country from Texas to North Carolina bracing today for yet another blast of cold, snow and freezing rain. (And let’s not forget California, which despite recent rains is still suffering from drought.)

You can see the evolution of this winter’s temperatures between January 1 and Feb. 6 in the animation above. I made it using individual daily maps showing how temperature departed from the long-term average.

I count five or six individual outbreaks of frigid polar air blasting across much of the Lower 48. Meanwhile, look at Alaska. Thanks to a stubborn ridge of high pressure, it stays much warmer than normal for most of the time. Greenland and other parts of the Arctic are mostly warm as well, while frigid air surges south out of Siberia on a couple of occasions.

In our day-to-day lives, it can be easy to generalize too much about what we’re experiencing. In Alaska, I reckon many people who were skeptical of the reality of global warming and attendant climate change might be having second thoughts. Ditto in Australia, by the way, where the state of Victoria has been experiencing its worst fire conditions in years. Over the weekend, bushfires there are reported to have set an open-pit coal mine ablaze and destroyed dozens of homes.

Meanwhile, in the midwestern heartland of the United States, where it has been decidedly cold outside, folks could be forgiven for feeling a bit more skeptical than they may have been before.

Research shows pretty clearly that our immediate experiences do, in fact, color our perceptions about things like climate change. As Marika Konnikova writes in the New Yorker:

The closer you are to an experience—be it a pain au chocolat you just ate, an article you just read, or the weather outside as you walked to the office—the more that experience colors your beliefs. In a phenomenon known as attribute substitution, we substitute the most immediately available, recent information for more general—and relevant—information when we make a judgment or a decision.

From an evolutionary standpoint, favoring immediately available information kind of makes sense, given that our ancestors had to focus more on saber-toothed cats than grappling with slow, long-term climate change.

Not everyone is easily swayed by what they experience on the way to work. The research also shows that people at opposite poles of belief about issues like climate change tend not to shift that much based on the vicissitudes of weather. But people in the middle — the vast majority — are prone to blowing hot and cold, or at least warm and cool, depending on what the thermometer says.

Over the long-run, extreme cold is actually becoming increasingly rare in the United States, thanks to warming that stems from our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As Andrew Freedman of Climate Central points out, research shows that “overall, winters across the contiguous U.S. have warmed by .61°F per decade since 1970, and every region has warmed at least somewhat over that time.”

But to be honest, I’ve felt my own level of concern about warming and changes to climate slip ever so slightly each time I’ve donned my heavy down coat this winter, and pulled on my new Sorrel winter boots (which kept me warm in Norway down to -25 F!). I’m only human.

So in the interest in helping myself and others keep our eyes on the big picture — both geographically and over time — I thought I’d share this too:

polar outbreaks Google Earth warming interactive

If you have Google Earth and would like to explore how temperatures have changed over time in different parts of the world over time, click to download a spectacular layer file from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. (Source: Images from Google Earth. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

In the animation above, consisting of two screenshots from Google Earth, North America is overlaid with a grid of red and green boxes, each one 5° on a side. This is how the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit divides the world to calculate changes in temperature over time.

If you have Google Earth, you can obtain a graph of temperature change within any of the boxes — the one covering where you live or anywhere else in the world.

First, click on the image to download a KML file that will add a layer to Google Earth. Then click on the file to launch the layer.

When Google Earth opens, click on any of the grid boxes to see how the average annual temperature has changed over time there. Then click within the box to check how temperatures have changed at each of the monitoring stations in that area. (All told, there are 4,800 individual monitoring stations on land.)

Here is what the annual temperature time-series looks like for Duluth, Minnesota, a town that has had its share of particularly cold weather this winter:

Duluth temperature series polar outbreaks

Source: Google Earth and Climatic Research Unit

This graph illustrates the issue perfectly. Year by year, the average temperature varies quite a bit, thanks to natural variations in the climate system. At the same time, the overall trend is clear.

But we’re not really all that attuned to changes that play out over a time frame measured in decades. And as I finish this post, I’m contemplating having to throw on my down coat and those Sorrel boots — because I most definitely am attuned to the fact that it is bloody cold out right now.

  • Uncle Al

    1) Take any climate model you believe, then 2) Run it backwards to predict known weather prior to its database, if any, for the same length of time you want to look forwards. 3) If it does not work backwards it does not work forwards.

    How many climate models pass this simple test? I withhold the empirical answer lest you claim my fundamental anti-bias in believing your claimed results.

    • Tom Yulsman

      I have no “claimed results.” I report what actual experts have to say, and most important, I work hard to find compelling imagery to share with readers in hopes that these photographs, remote sensing images, animations, etc. will both inform and inspire. Evidently you find some worth to them, since you keep coming back. I’m glad.

      Have a nice day.

      • Uncle Al

        Sure – but data collection and reporting are centrally selective. Thermometers were placed in rural vegetation. They are now placed amidst concrete and asphalt. People set to have cardiac surgery were often put on a course of beta-blocker for two weeks prior. If that reduced mortality, wonderful! If it did not affect mortality, the patient was being cheated by Big Pharma. In fact, mortality rate was substantially increased. A lot of people died before the pre-op was discontinued.

        When the Media enable $trillion derailment of economies by “advocates,” killing the patients, it is not a neutral Media stance. NOBODY knows what effects, if any, are anthropogenic. NO climate prediction modality is accurate in known retrospect (before its database, if any). Morality is bollocks. Ethics are important.

      • Uncle Al

        “Earth’s average temperature has remained more or less steady since 2001, despite rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases”

    • Christina Lefevre-Gonzalez

      I find your approach toward assessing longitudinal data worrisome. Your fundamental assumption seems to be that every model follows a consistent trajectory; that there is no marginal increase or decrease in data when looking either backward or forward through time. No increase in standard deviation from the mean. No exponential growth from one year to the next. It’s entirely simplistic and a terrible way of assessing climate models.

      • Uncle Al

        Really? How do you know that your gauged, renormalized, perturbation theoried, dualed, promoted into higher dimensions, exhaustively peer reviewed and published, supercharged model is any closer to the truth for future predictions? If it does not work backwards it does not work forwards. Heteroskedasticity cannot repair that, even when spelled “heteroscedasticity.” (We call that “irony.”)

        Look at modeled weather (not climate), European vs. American models for hurricane path. European models’ iterations are run backward until they are consistent. American models are only run forward. When predictions diverge, ignore the American models.

  • Mike C

    It would be interesting to look at the records for the 1950’s for the same areas, you know, just to see IF there is a pattern match…anywhere.

  • Buddy199

    The climate models’ predictions have been kind of soft when measured against actual data the past 30 years or so. I’d give the modelers the same advice I once gave my old math-challenged accountant: “Mel, I can be an idiot on my own.”

    Seriously, they need to be able to make a solid, accurate prediction 10 years out that come true. Not predictions that they always have to back track on. For instance, the hiatus. It wasn’t predicted by the models, yet now we hear numerous confident theories explaining it in hindsight. Expert hindsight isn’t that valuable, just ask the Denver Broncos.

    First, get the models right. Then it will be easier to get the public behind possible solutions.

    • JH

      Just a year ago, there was widespread consensus on the cause of the “anomalous” stall in warming from 1945-1975 (which is also apparent in Tom’s graph of Duluth, MN temps). The supposedly robust models all confirmed this consensus explanation.

      The skeptics that predicted another such stall were deemed not worth listening to. ENSO? Bah! No effect on global climate!

      The skeptics’ voices are still deemed unworthy, but their ideas have been co-opted by the consensus almost over night.

  • OWilson

    Another example of AGW cherry picking, to the point of exaggeration.

    Why will you folks in the popular science magazine business never publish a simple, straight chart of global average temperatures, say since the satellite era (some 35 years)?

    That would be a consistent apples to apples comparison that even grade school kids could understand.

    On the other hand, maybe I’ve answered my own question :)

    • Tom Yulsman

      Over the years I’ve published numerous graphs of global average temperature. And they all show pretty much the same thing, just as I said in the story: “Year by year, the average temperature varies quite a bit, thanks to natural variations in the climate system. At the same time, the overall trend is clear.” Evidently you see what you want to see in that trend, which is totally fine. But please don’t criticize responsible journalists for not seeing things the same way as you do. We’re doing our best to tell the truth. Sometimes we miss the mark. When we do, we correct the record. But there is nothing to correct here.

      • OWilson

        The only trend that concerns most of us is the empirical observed trend over the last 35 years satellite record.

        The old data is based on old instrumentation, is subject to interpretation, lack of a standard benchmark coverage, by “climate scientists”, who have already decided “the science is settled”.

        They tell us that weather is weather, but 30 years represents climate.

        That being so, the present climate is stable, in spite of the increased world C02 emissions, and certainly not ‘catastrophic”.

        The future?

        Depends on whether you believe in the AGW C02 theory, or natural variation.

        The former has been falsified, to say the least.

  • David Lelli

    Yeah the overall trend is clear. The overall trend is for more and more cars and trucks, more pavement and more buildings in and around various climate stations, like the one at Duluth. These added heat sources are the main cause of the overall upward trend in temperatures for stations like this across the nation and throughout the world. If you go 10-20 miles outside any city into surrounding rural areas, where the surroundings are similar to those of its weather station 50+ years ago, temperatures are 5-10 F cooler. If data were recorded from these areas over the years I would venture to say that no such upward trend in temperatures would be noted.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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