Hot Air about a Warm Winter

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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 blueskies, 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-yearrecord for the continental United States, and few are complaining. Butbecause it is good news, the same federal climatologists who glibly pulledthe greenhouse effect trigger on the 1993 snowstorm can't bring themselvesto tell why we are so happy: global warming. Instead, they subsequentlytrotted out a scare story about how the warm winter is causing a drought.

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

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

Further proof, ironically, is given by satellite and weather balloon datathat show no warming (after allowing for the now-departed 1998 El Niño)since their records became concurrent in 1979. These instruments are bestat measuring the atmospheric slice from roughly 5,000 to 30,000 feet, butthe 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 andlower-atmospheric temperature was forecast by the climate models cited asevidence for a global-warming disaster.

Droughts are caused by deficits in water balance as evaporation exceedsprecipitation. In the winter, over most of the nation, temperatures and thesun'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 nationare saturated. The recent warm winter was only three degrees above thelong-term average, or the average temperature difference between, say, March5 and March 15. Evaporation rates remained low because the mean temperatureis still way below the summer peak. So warm winter or not, wintertemperatures do not cause droughts.

Federal behavior is not hallmarked with consistency. If global warming iscaused by burning of fossil fuels (it probably is), and if it is a terribleproblem (I'll bet not), then the only way it can be stopped is by raisingenergy prices through the roof. How high? Today's $2.00 per gallongasoline hasn't dented consumption enough to cool the mean temperature ofthe 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 intemperature of less than 1/100 of a degree. But with the softballs flying bymy window on this fine March day, who on earth would want to do such a thinganyway?