Freaky February: Warm Temperatures Caused by Climate Change

You probably celebrated the warm February by enjoying a balmy bike ride. While you wouldn’t usually see people wearing short-sleeves until late March, this year was different. Is climate change behind the freaky February temperatures? And if that’s the case, how are we going to pay for the untimely warmer weather?

According to a recent study, 2017’s last winter month broke over 11,700 local daily records for warmth in the United States alone. Climate scientists said it was worryingly close to beating the warmest February on record, which occurred in 1954. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported Wednesday that the surprising temperatures are a sign of volatile weather patterns.

During February, scientists recorded an average temperature of 41.2 degrees – 7.3 degrees warmer than normal and three-tenths a degree behind the record. NOAA climate scientist Jake Crouch reported it was unseasonably warm for most of the country east of the Rockies, but thanks to a cool Pacific Northwest, the national record did not fall considerably.

Freaky February Proves Climate Scientists Right

However pleasant it was to experience a shorter winter, the warm bout does not bode well for the environment. NOAA says it’s only the latest puzzle piece in the growing overall painting of the progress of climate change. While global warming is usually blamed for extreme heat incidents, the early spring is just as much an effect.

For the past few decades, winter remained the quickest warming season in Northern America and this year’s February has followed that very pattern. From a historical point of view, February temperatures have seen an increase by 3°F since 1895. That figure is almost twice as quick as the global average. While the last month conformed with the trend, it didn’t dethrone the warmest February on record.

The National Centers for Environmental Information reported U.S.’ warmest February occurred in 1954. However, 2017 doesn’t fall behind that much. With 7.3°F above normal, it was the fifth-most abnormally warm month to have ever been recorded. Overall, sixteen states across the country experienced their least cold February on record, starting with New York to Texas.

A Sign of Warning

The weather map didn’t paint a pretty picture for nearly all of February – and winter, for that matter. Red from one border to another in the eastern parts of the nation, the map showed the Pacific Northwest was the only one featuring temperatures colder than average. The warm weather caused a surprising ratio of daily record lows versus record highs, while also accelerating spring’s arrival by up to four weeks in some areas.

The lack of a proper winter has unimaginable effects. A March frost, for instance, could mean the death of most early blooming trees and flowers, which could affect the economy in all kinds of ways. At the same time, the early spring could lead to more mosquitoes and ticks in 2017. And nobody wants that. While we enjoy a walk in the park, the negative effects could be lurking behind the corner.

In order to understand the cause of the freaky February temperatures, scientists used climate models and historical data. According to historical records, in the 1900s, this kind of relentless warmth was an event occurring just once in 160 years. In the present climate, however, the rate increased to one event in 12 years. Various models helped scientists understand the specific part played by climate change. The findings showed that the effects of global warming have actually tripled the February heat.

Freakish or the New Norm?

Andrew King, one of the report’s authors and a fellow researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science in Melbourne, doesn’t have a very optimistic answer to that question. If we maintain the current rate of toxic emissions, the lukewarm February could be the new standard by 2050. According to this research, the untimely heat has increased in prevalence over the past few decades. Unfortunately, it will also continue to increase in frequency in the future.

While the discoveries are yet to be peer reviewed, the report is already gaining traction among climate change scientists. Because it used some of the most popular peer-reviewed techniques, the team is confident other experts in the field will soon confirm their results. A wide range of the previous studies conducted with these techniques proved that temperature changes are not just very much real, but also causing the extreme heat spells we experience around the world.

“Across the world we’re finding that we can link unusually warm weather events to climate change,” said King. “I’m aware of similar large changes in odds in other studies of wintertime high temperature events over the U.S., and so this is not too surprising,” added Martin Hoerling, a climate scientist with the Earth System Research Laboratory.

Hoerling also said the findings are in accordance with previous climate change research, but the study had one caveat. While February experienced a 3°F warming, much of that increase occurred in the early section of the temperature record. By comparison, the planet saw a rapid warmth in the second part of the temperature record. But according to Hoerling, further research could address this minor mismatch.

Historical Record

A footnote on the report was the one mentioning the February of 1954. That year won the title for the warmest February on record in the history of U.S., but this year came in a strong second. King said last month experienced extremely unusual weather patterns, trapping enough warmth over the whole nation, as well as Canada. The jet stream simply blocked the majority of North America from Arctic air, causing “an extreme meridional jet stream pattern,” according to meteorologists.

In comparison to 1954, February 2017 followed a moderately regular weather pattern. The only interruption was the series of storms sweeping California, similar to a unfavorable Pacific North American Pattern. Climate change combined with natural random weather variations resulted in a particularly weird end of winter.

“This negative PNA reflects circulations that specifically don’t encourage high-latitude air to drop down into the Southeast,” stated Scripps Institution of Oceanography climate researcher Michael Dettinger. “These days we wouldn’t need the same atmospheric conditions to match that heat because of the background warming trend,” King added.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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