Is 2011’s Crazy Year in Weather Our “New Normal”?

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Extreme weather, Learn

As The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist discussed on the CBS Early Show on Monday, this has been by all counts a very extreme and wacky year for weather.

Last Saturday evening while walking to the variety show at my son’s college, snow began to fall, mixing with the puddles from the day’s rain and clinging to boots and the hems of jeans. Two hours later the world had changed. The streets of Waltham, Massachusetts were nearly impassable—not due to the few inches of snow that had accumulated, but to the branches and even whole trees that had bent and fallen into the roads.


(left) a downed oak tree from the Halloween nor’easter of 2011. 

(right) oak leaves in the nor’easter snow that had barely even changed color before coming down in the storm, due to the warm fall. 

Winter snow in the Northeast normally does little harm to trees. But last weekend’s storm was not typical, and showed two acts of a show we can call “Extreme Northeast.”

Act One was that up until then New England had experienced an exceptionally warm fall. Trees had not lost their leaves or even turned fully from green to fall colors. I was still harvesting peppers, okra and tomatillos from our garden in western Massachusetts just 48 hours before the snow began.

By Sunday morning our okra plants were under a foot and a half of snow; nearly three feet had fallen in some nearby towns. Trees across New England bent and snapped as their leaves caught and held an unaccustomed burden of snow. Beneath that weight trees fell onto homes, cars, roads and especially power lines. Nearly 3 million people lost power and many roads were closed off due to wires down across them. This was the second act of Extreme Northeast—the worst autumn snowfall since the snow hurricane of 1804.

Last night, NBC News took a look at this crazy year for weather and how excessive carbon pollution can serve as “steroids” for extreme weather events.

Tornadoes and floods devastated the Gulf and Midwest this past spring; drought and wildfire ravaged the Southwest as record-setting heat blanketed the country this summer (each state experienced at least one record-setting high temperature day in July); Hurricane Irene stormed up the Northeast coast in late summer bringing record-breaking rain and floods to inland areas and washing away covered bridges that had stood in place for more than a hundred years.

The size of the floods came home to me in a very personal way when my son’s tree fort became accessible by kayak. Tropical storm Lee followed up just over a week after Irene bringing more floods. And now we’ve had a record-shattering nor’easter before the calendar could even turn to November that has left places in Massachusetts and Connecticut STILL without power.

On top of everything else, since the year 2000 we have seen, incredibly but not surprisingly, 10 of the 11 hottest years on record, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). By the way, the other hottest years rounding out the top 20 are all from the 1990s or 1980s.

But what really brings this home is that people in nearly every part of the U.S. were victim to at least one harsh weather event (whether it be flooding, wildfire, drought, crippling winter storms, or extreme heat). And in many places we’re seeing one extreme event create the opportunity for another event with cascading impacts.

For example, in the Tushar Mountains of Utah, last year’s major wildfire created the possibility for this year’s floods. In Texas, heat exacerbated the effects of drought, creating the possibility for record-breaking wildfires. High water temperatures in the Caribbean in 2005 and 2010 triggered coral bleaching that can kill the reefs; the dying reefs leave communities behind them more vulnerable to storm events. And here in the Northeast, it was the warm fall that made the early nor’easter’s impact so devastating.

Apples braving the Halloween nor’easter. 

These extreme weather events are in most cases consistent with the general trends predicted (and that we’re already seeing) for our changing planet due to excessive carbon pollution and emissions of other greenhouse gases.

And, an upcoming IPCC extreme weather report (to be released in full later this month) reinforces this. Press reports suggest the report will identify more than a 90 percent chance that some forms of extreme weather events, such as extremely hot days and heat waves, will increase due to climate change.

To me, policy and press discussions of climate change often focus on the wrong words. We discuss “average” temperatures and “mean” precipitation, but what will kill people (for example, 56,000 dead in the 2010 Russian heat waves) and do the most economic and ecological damage are the extremes.

Bottom line: climate change is helping to make these extreme and wacky weather events part of a new “normal” that we need to be prepared for as best we can. In my next blog I’ll talk about some of the things we can do to be prepared, and where we can look to nature for help with that preparation.

Frank Lowenstein is Adaptation Strategy Lead for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team.

Photos by: Frank Lowenstein/The Nature Conservancy

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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