Commentary

Hot Air about a Warm Winter

Seven years ago, on March 13, 1993, the eastern third of the United States was pasted by a big low-pressure system that was (erroneously) called the “Storm of the Century.” It dumped two inches of snow on the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida and two feet of snow in a wide swath from southwestern Virginia through New York and was followed by record cold. The next day, Kevin Trenberth, a federal climatologist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, went on Meet the Press to say that global warming, El Niño, and the 1991 Mount Pinatubo volcano were all involved. Never mind that Pinatubo caused a well-known global cooling.

A look out today’s window reveals a remarkably different picture of blue skies, daffodils and softball practice.

Given the choice, which Ides of March do you prefer?

The fact is that we have just completed the warmest winter in the 105-year record for the continental United States, and few are complaining. But because it is good news, the same federal climatologists who glibly pulled the greenhouse effect trigger on the 1993 snowstorm can’t bring themselves to tell why we are so happy: global warming. Instead, they subsequently trotted out a scare story about how the warm winter is causing a drought.

Even the most rudimentary statistical analysis of winter temperatures reveals that our coldness is determined by the number and severity of incursions of miserable, deadly, frigid air, minted in northwestern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia and shipped south. Winters in which there is little of this activity, such as the totally delightful ones of 1931-32 (87 degrees Fahrenheit in Roanoke, Virginia, on February 11, 1932) or 1999-2000, tend to record above-average temperatures.

Federal climatologists could have looked it up in the January 24 issue of Climate Research, which proved that the greenhouse warming in the last half of the 20th century is largely confined to those same cold air masses. That is predicted by greenhouse effect theory but rarely mentioned in the rush to gloom. In the Northern Hemisphere winter half-year, which itself contains over two-thirds of the surface temperature warming, these frigid-air killers of the homeless are warming at a rate 10 times greater than the average warming everywhere else! The paper proved the greenhouse effect was the finger on this trigger by showing that the more cold air there is, the more it warms up.

Further proof, ironically, is given by satellite and weather balloon data that show no warming (after allowing for the now-departed 1998 El Niño) since their records became concurrent in 1979. These instruments are best at measuring the atmospheric slice from roughly 5,000 to 30,000 feet, but the cold Siberian and North American air is usually more shallow than that.

Because people saving the planet do not brook embarrassment with decorum, please don’t ask them whether this disparity between the surface and lower-atmospheric temperature was forecast by the climate models cited as evidence for a global-warming disaster.

Droughts are caused by deficits in water balance as evaporation exceeds precipitation. In the winter, over most of the nation, temperatures and the sun’s angle are so low that there’s very little evaporation, which is why, even in a dry January, most of the soils in the eastern half of the nation are saturated. The recent warm winter was only three degrees above the long-term average, or the average temperature difference between, say, March 5 and March 15. Evaporation rates remained low because the mean temperature is still way below the summer peak. So warm winter or not, winter temperatures do not cause droughts.

Federal behavior is not hallmarked with consistency. If global warming is caused by burning of fossil fuels (it probably is), and if it is a terrible problem (I’ll bet not), then the only way it can be stopped is by raising energy prices through the roof. How high? Today’s $2.00 per gallon gasoline hasn’t dented consumption enough to cool the mean temperature of the planet 1/1,000 of a degree, even if spread over a year. In other words, a two-term Gore administration at that price would produce a change in temperature of less than 1/100 of a degree. But with the softballs flying by my window on this fine March day, who on earth would want to do such a thing anyway?

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of The Satanic Gases, scheduled for publication in May.