Before we can truly discuss the possibility of climate change, we have to be willing to set aside our political biases. We have to be willing to examine the issue purely from a standpoint of science (or, perhaps more accurately, a standpoint of data) and not allow politics to enter the equation.
I’m not interested in the politics of climate change. As a conservative conservationist (not to be confused with a conservative environmentalist, because I’m not sure there is such a thing, but I probably edge fairly close to that line), I think any measure we can take to help make our air, streams and ecosystems cleaner is a good thing…but that making wholesale changes to our way of life that will fundamentally alter our socioeconomic dynamic aren’t changes that can be made based on politically-charged science.
My biggest beef with climate change alarmists is the rush to blame every episode of significant weather on climate change. A powerful hurricane rocks the Florida panhandle? Climate change. Wildfires devastate California? Climate change. Tornadoes in the South? Climate change. Knee-jerk alarmism does no favors to an issue that deserves careful examination. Climate and weather are two different things, and extreme weather has been occurring since the beginning of time. It’s fair to examine the trends of powerful hurricanes and wildfires and floods, but it’s not fair to blame each individual hurricane, wildfire and flood on climate change.
With all that said, there’s no longer any point in denying the fact that, yes, our climate is changing. It’s fair to consider the possibility that it might be cyclical change — which is to say that perhaps we’re in the midst of a multi-decadal shift in our weather patterns that will ultimately revert back to old norms. But that doesn’t change the fact that the weather we can expect in any given area of the United States this year, 2019, is different fro the weather that we could’ve expected in the same place in 1999 and 1979.
Yes, our climate is changing
I was talking to someone the other day who immediately scoffed when I said that the climate is changing. I’m not sure I understand that point-of-view. It’s akin to burying one’s head in the sand. But we’ve conditioned ourselves, through our political ideologies, to accept or reject the undeniable based on whether our political allegiances fall to the left or right of the liberal-conservative divide.
It’s important to note that accepting climate change as fact isn’t to accept anthropogenic global warming, or manmade climate change, as fact. There’s a distinction to be made there. I’m a huge skeptic of AGW. I’m not going to say with certainty that man cannot have an influence on the climate, but I’m hardly convinced that man has had an influence on the climate. The scare tactics used by 2020 presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke and other key Democrats that the world will end in as soon as 12 years if we don’t act is complete and utter nonsense that does nothing except drive the wedge of division further into this issue and damage any prospect we have of open and honest discussion of climate change’s potential causes, implications and solutions.
I’m fairly certain that most people who would self-identify as climate change deniers mistakenly presume that an admission that the climate is changing is a concession that man is responsible for that change. It’s not. But at what point does the data become impossible to deny?
I’m using my home region of the northern Cumberland Plateau in the Mid-South as a data point. On the northern plateau, our spring and fall seasons are becoming shorter and muddled, our annual rainfall is increasing, our annual snowfall is decreasing and our average temperature is going up. These aren’t theories. These are facts conclusively drawn from data.
We’re getting wetter
The 2015 calendar year was a wet one on the northern Cumberland Plateau. In Oneida, Tenn., 72.6 inches of rain were recorded. It was the most rainfall that had fallen in Oneida since 1950. The average rainfall in a single year is 55.7 inches.
The previous year, 2014, had also seen a lot of rain fall — 67.8 inches of precipitation were recorded in Oneida that year. And in 2018, Oneida was close to setting a record again, with 69.1 inches of rain recorded.
With a whopping 12.9 inches of rain in February alone, Oneida could be on pace for another very wet year. Coupled with 6.5 inches of rain in January, Oneida was closing in on 20 inches of rain through just the first two months of 2019 — about twice as much as normal. It was the wettest start to a year on record in Oneida.
Consider this: four of the past five years in Oneida have featured above-average rainfall. Despite an extreme drought in Fall 2016, we’ve averaged 63.4 inches of rain per year during that five-year span — almost eight inches above normal each year.
When I noted recently that our annual rainfall is increasing in Oneida, Gary Bible emailed with data that has been taken from his rain gauge at his Helenwood home for the past 12 years. His data, beginning in 2007, clearly shows an increase in rainfall during that span of just over a decade.
Obviously rainfall over a period of a few years is not indicative of long-term change, but rainfall over an 80-year period is. I pulled data from a National Weather Service recording station in Crossville, Tenn. I used Crossville because its data is the most reliable of the northern plateau cities, and the climate there is the same as the rest of the region. As the above graph clearly indicates, we’re slowly getting wetter.
What that graph doesn’t show is the prevalence of extremes. When charted, yearly rainfall extremes are becoming more common. In Crossville, for example, 2018 was a record year for precipitation, with 80.9 inches of rainfall recorded. That broke the old record of 75.9 inches of rain, set in 1973. Of the seven wettest years on record, three of them have been this decade (2015 and 2011) while a fourth was in 2009.
In Oneida, four of the top eight wettest years on record are this decade (2015, 2018, 2014 and 2017). And the three wettest years on record have all occurred this decade (2015, 2018 and 2014). It should be noted that the NWS does not include an official rainfall total for the 2011 calendar year because several months were missing. If it did, five of the nine wettest years on record in Oneida, and all of the top four, would be this decade.
It’s snowing less
Let’s step away from the northern plateau a second to examine some data from Nashville. While Nashville is typically drier, with much less snow, than the northern plateau, the trends are often similar between the two geographic locations.
Nashville has historically averaged a winter with 18 inches or more of snow every six winters (22 times in 126 years). However, the last winter with 18 inches or more snow in Nashville was 1996 — 23 years ago. And that 1996 winter was the only one in the last 33 years with 18+ inches of snow.
That’s a brow-raising trend, but not surprising, because the same is happening on the Cumberland Plateau. It’s hard to formulate long-term snowfall averages in Oneida because the NWS has too many gaps in its data. But this much is known: the 2018-2019 winter ended today with only a trace of snow recorded in Oneida. It’s the second time in three years that’s happened; it also happened in 2016-2017. Throw in 2.0 inches of snow in 2017-2018, and Oneida has had fewer than five inches of total snowfall in the last three winters combined.
Back in Crossville, the above graph shows the annual snowfall by decade, which has been in decline since the 1960s. It has to be noted that the ’60s were an abnormally snowy decade across all of the Cumberland Plateau. But the last 10 years have featured incredibly little snow. The average annual snowfall for the decade in Crossville is just 6.3 inches — making 2010s the second least-snowiest decade on record there, behind the 1950s.
It simply doesn’t snow much in the 21st century.
It’s getting hotter
This, obviously, is the most carefully-examined weather factor in the climate change debate. Temperatures are rising, on average. In Crossville, eight of the 22 hottest years on record have been in the 2000s. (In order, they are 2015, 2016, 2010, 2007, 2012, 2017, 2011 and 2006.) Throw in 1999 and 1998, which rank as the hottest and 14th-hottest years on record, and 10 of the 22 hottest years in Crossville, out of the past 80 years overall, have been in the last two decades.
What’s interesting is that our daily high temperatures aren’t necessarily increasing. Temperatures topping 100 degrees remain extremely rare here. It’s happened in 11 out of almost 90 years in Crossville — and just twice in the 2000s. (By contrast, it happened in three years in the 1930s and in three years in the 1950s.)
Only five of the 22 hottest years on record have occurred in the 2000s (2015, 2016, 2007, 2010 and 2012) if you use the average daily high temperature rather than the average daily temperature. That’s still notable — but also notably different than the 8-of-22 listing when the average daily temperature is used.
So what’s the difference? It isn’t getting as cold at nights — which can happen due to a multitude of factors, including prevailing winds and cloud cover. (To be fair, warmer nights could also be related to an increase in greenhouse gases.) A whopping 13 of the 22 years with the warmest nights, on average, have occurred in the 2000s (2015, 2016, 2012, 2017, 2018, 2014, 2007, 2011, 2004, 2005, 2002, 2006).
Fifty-three of the past 90 years have featured at least one night with subzero temperatures in Crossville, and just three of them have been in the 2000s (2014, 2003, 2018). And of the 16 years that have featured at least one night with temperature of -10 or colder, none have occurred in the 2000s.
So, is it cyclical?
This is a different argument for a different day, because it inevitably steers into the realm of politics (conservatives will overwhelmingly say that climate change is cyclical, liberals will overwhelmingly say that it isn’t), and there doesn’t appear to be enough science to conclusively prove it either way.
But climate change likely has only one of two possible outcomes: it’s cyclical, or it’s man-made. If it’s man-made, it almost certainly cannot reverse itself. And if it’s not man-made, it almost certainly will.
While most leading scientists have latched onto AGW as the primary cause of climate change, there are many who haven’t, including some respected scientists who argue that climate change is being driven by ocean temperatures — and that those ocean temperatures aren’t being influenced by man. (Without getting too technical, Google the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, which entered its warm phase in the 1990s and is known by science to be a naturally-occurring phenomenon.)
Some important things to remember when considering this data: Records-keeping in Oneida only began around 1950, and it only began in Crossville around 1930. That’s hardly enough data to draw logical conclusions. Another caveat that is specific to snowfall: it’s interesting to note that there was a multi-decadal lapse in snowstorms in the 1930s and 1940s, continuing into the 1950s. In fact, if we lived in that era, we might have drawn the same conclusion that we’re drawing now: that it doesn’t snow as much as “it used to.” Then came the 1960s and 1970s, which were extremely snowy — particularly the 1960s.
In fact, there are temperature parallels that can also be drawn between the 2000s-2010s and the 1930s-1940s. (Similarly, while it has nothing to do with this geographic region, there were periods of polar ice melt in the 1930s that aren’t altogether different from what’s currently being experienced.) It’s hardly conclusive, but it’s compelling.
To date, our climate hasn’t changed enough to cause ecological impacts on the Cumberland Plateau — just changes to our weather. The annual growing season has been extended in our region by about two or three weeks over the past 30 years, according to scientists in Oak Ridge at the Department of Energy. But rare plant and animal life has not been impacted.
Our climate change may indeed be a multi-decadal revolving pattern…but, regardless, our climate has changed. That should drive any of us who are impacted by weather — and that would be all of us — to want to earn more about the whys and hows, without drawing blind conclusions based on politics.