No Fact Checks Please

June 9, 2000 • Commentary

Just the facts. That’s what people want to know about the weather and the climate, and what they are getting, judging from recent media stories about U.S. temperatures from January through April, isn’t even close to what they want.

A recent Scripps‐​Howard story was titled “U.S. Experiences Warmest First Quarter on Record.” Part of the first paragraph read, “The first four months of this year were the warmest such quarter in 106 years.” Fact: Four months are a third of a year, not a quarter.

The Environmental News Service writes that this is “a year already marked in the U.S. by threats of record drought, wildfires and huge tornadoes.” Fact: The standard measure of drought, something called the Palmer Drought Severity Index, currently shows that 4.6 percent of the lower 48 states are experiencing what the index objectively defines as extreme drought. But the average figure for the 20th century is 4.4 percent, making the year 2000 about as close to normal as one can get.

Fact: Ninety percent of the area experiencing this level of drought is in the desert band extending from eastern California through the Texas panhandle. Almost this entire zone averages less than 10 inches of rain per year. A drought in a desert is about as significant as a thunderstorm over the ocean.

Later, ENS states that “in 1999, the U.S. experienced one of its worse droughts ever recorded.” In fact, even less of the country experienced extreme drought than was normal, although we were bombarded with daily gloom‐​and‐​doom stories.

Fact: That huge wildfire in Los Alamos was set by the National Park Service. The moisture status of the New Mexico climatic district that includes Los Alamos is within one standard deviation of its long‐​term average. In other words, it is not unusually dry. Nor is the United States especially dry, as shown by the January‐​April national precipitation index. Both the year 2000 and the last decade have tended to be wetter on average than equivalent periods over the last 100 years.

Fact: We have 47 years of tornado records. In 29 of these years more tornadoes struck in April than had during this April. Also, the best evidence we have is that the “average” reported tornado is weaker, as new Doppler Radar systems pick up suspicious circulations that went previously undetected. Tornado deaths have been declining for decades, despite the fact that Midwestern cities continue to sprawl into more and more of Tornado Alley.

Both ENS and Scripps supply an Internet address for weather data. Perhaps they looked but didn’t see, because all of the facts listed above came from that site.

A little critical analysis of the data available on this site might also have informed readers as to what this all means. The Web site’s graph of the 106‐​year record of April temperatures shows no warming trend at all. However, the graph of January‐​April temperatures shows that the last two decades have tended to average above the long‐​term mean, although the warming trend is amplified because it began in the late 1970s, which is the coldest period in the entire record.

Conclusion? The January‐​April warming must be solely driven by the January‐​March (winter) portion of the record. Had those articles done this skimpy bit of additional research, they would have forced readers to the ultimate question: What’s so bad about this?

Instead, ENS goes on to threaten readers with starvation, reporting that “climate change may significantly reduce future crop yields in some U.S. agricultural regions.” But the upcoming U.S. National Assessment of Global Warming shows that climate change will increase the yields of 92 percent of American crops, including the major staples of wheat, corn and soybeans. The other 8 percent change very little. The assessment says that improved yields will be evident by 2030 and that they will continue to grow through at least 2090. This document has been leaked throughout Washington, which is ENS’s dateline.

And just to make sure we realize that all of these disasters are here and now, ENS reminds us that the National Weather Service is forecasting a “significant drought” across “much of the U.S.” this summer. A look at the current drought facts and recent rainfall records would have revealed that this forecast is already busting, even though summer has not even begun. And, with the exception of the El Nino‐​based forecasts for the winter of 1997–98, the accuracy of season‐​in‐​advance forecasts has been only slightly better than one can get by flipping a coin.

These, as they say, are the facts. And facts aren’t what we are getting from the environmental press these pleasant spring days.

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