Record Heat Wave Grips US: But Is It Climate Change?

Thousands of temperature records have been shattered in recent weeks. Awesome or awful?

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  1. How hot is it?

  2. So hot that more than 7,000 temperature records have been shattered, sometimes by 30, 40, even 50 degrees. So hot that the cherry blossoms are out in Washington D.C., a month before normal.
  3. A spring heat wave like no other in U.S. and Canadian history peaked in intensity yesterday, during its tenth day. Since record keeping began in the late 1800s, there have never been so many temperature records broken for spring warmth in a one-week period--and the margins by which some of the records were broken yesterday were truly astonishing. Wunderground's weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, commented to me yesterday, "it's almost like science fiction at this point."
  4. Records are not only being broken across the country, they're being broken in unusual ways. Chicago, for example, saw temperatures above 26.6°Celsius (80°Fahrenheit) every day between March 14-18, breaking records on all five days. For context, the National Weather Service noted that Chicago typically averages only one day in the eighties each in April. And only once in 140 years of weather observations has April produced as many 80°Fahrenheit days as this March. Meanwhile, Climate Central reported that in Rochester, Minnesota. the overnight low temperature on March 18 was 16.6°Celsius (62°Fahrenheit), a temperature so high it beat the record high of 15.5°Celsius (60°Fahrenheit) for the same date.
  5. So hot that usually staid scientists are freaking out:

  6. When low temperatures are the same as previous record highs, “that’s incredible — to me, that’s just mind-boggling,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.
  7. So hot that NOAA's site that records record temps crashed because "1) the software couldn't handle the huge number of high-temperature records being set and 2) the site couldn't handle the huge demand from people wanting to see the records."
  8. Journalists are also on edge:
  9. As is Obama. And Oprah:
  10. Speaking at a high-dollar Chicago fundraiser hosted by Oprah Winfrey as the city basked in June-like weather last week, President Barack Obama admitted to being “a little nervous” about global warming: “We’ve had a good day,” Obama said. “It’s warm every place. It gets you a little nervous about what’s happening to global temperatures. But when it’s 75 degrees in Chicago in the beginning of March it gets you thinking … ” “Something’s wrong,” Oprah interjected. “Yeah,” Obama said. “On other hand we really have enjoyed the nice weather.”
  11. OK, so the usual pundits and scientists are sweating bullets. But whose lives will the heat wave actually impact? As Julia Whitty reports, pretty much everyone's:
  12. UPDATE: Looking back, NOAA reports that this March, the warmest on record since 1895, was even freakier than we first thought. Below, the story of March's epic craziness, as told in maps:
  13. But is it a freak occurrence or evidence of a bigger problem. In other words, is it climate or is it weather?

  14. First, what is the difference between climate and weather? Here's a brilliant video that explains:
  15. Yeah, but it's hard to know for sure if this particular heat wave is due to climate change, right?

  16. Hey, didn't you watch the video? Once the heat wave has run its course, scientists will be able to study it to know with a reasonable degree of certainty if global warming was a contributing factor...
  17. Although studies have not yet been conducted on the main factors that triggered this heat wave and whether global warming may have tilted the odds in favor of the event, scientific studies of previous heat events clearly show that global warming increases the odds of heat extremes, in much the same way as using steroids boosts the chances that a baseball player will hit more home runs in a given year. Gabi Hegerl, Chair of Climate System Science at the University of Edinburgh, said there is evidence that extreme heat events have become more common and more severe, including at the regional level in parts of the U.S. ”This is consistent with observing more and stronger heat waves,” she said. Hegerl said that in order to draw conclusions about global warming’s role in this particular heat wave, one would need to conduct modeling studies where you compare the odds of this event occurring with and without added greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, “to see how much the warming has changed the odds.”
  18. In a conference call this morning, Princeton geosciences professor and longtime IPCC participant Dr. Michael Oppenheimer said that global warming is ramping up the baseline temperature, so that the probability of super-hot days is higher and higher. "In the greenhouse world, randomly warm days become super-warm compared to what we've seen previously," he said.
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