Saturday, May 28, 2016

Summer Weather in Spring

Whether you measure land or ocean, Earth is hotter than it has ever been in the thermometer era. Does this extra heat make a difference? Here are five indications that it does.

  • All this month an enormous forest fire has been burning in northwestern Canada. It started in Alberta and in the past week has spread into Saskatchewan, where it is a mere 45 kilometers from the next town. The fire forced 100,000 people to evacuate and oil production to shut down. A week of cool, damp weather has allowed an international team of firefighters to turn the corner on the fire, but only in a relative sense. The fire is still considered completely out of control and despite the cool weather has grown another 20 percent to 574,000 hectares. Canada has seen fires like this before but only in the summer months. It is unprecedented to see a fire like this start at the beginning of May. Unless weather turns decidedly wet, the fire could go all summer, burning out completely only when snow arrives in the fall.
  • Farther north, earlier in the spring, a tractor-trailer fell through the ice on one of the ice roads that traverse lakes in winter to reach far northern mining outposts. The driver escaped and the truck was rescued, but the incident forced the ice road to close early.
  • In both Asia and North America, the spring snow cover melted away weeks earlier than normal. The early snow melt set the stage for the fire I just mentioned and may also be related to early sea ice melt.
  • Arctic sea ice is 11 days ahead in its melting. I don’t mean 11 days ahead of average, though that would be troubling enough. The record low year for Arctic ice, 2012, was 7 days ahead of average at this point in the calendar. But currently the melt is 11 days ahead of the previous record low. This is something that has almost never happened before — only in summer when heading toward a new all-time low. Arctic sea ice started May at a record low for the day and has proceeded to melt at a June-like pace. It hit a new low for May on May 19 and has set a new record low for the month every day since.
  • There is a tropical storm warning for the entire South Carolina coastline. Tropical Storm Bonnie is expected to reach the coast late tonight and stay in the neighborhood through Monday. The tropical season “officially” begins June 1, so this storm is a week ahead of schedule — though tropical systems in June are a rarity to begin with, so you could say Bonnie is months ahead of schedule. And why are we using the letter B for the first storm of the season? The letter A was already taken by a freak January hurricane that contributed to high winds in the far northern Atlantic. In that sense, this summer’s tropical season begins with a head start.

The common element in these unlikely weather-related events is summer-like conditions arriving before the climate calendar says it is time. Summer weather in spring — that sounds like the kind of change you would look for with unusually high temperatures. If we continue to see anomalies like this, we’ll be able to say that the warming climate is changing the world around us in specific ways that force us to change our plans.