Climate Versus Weather — Record Global Temps and a Blizzard Warning

Climate Versus Weather — Record Global Temps and a Blizzard Warning

The distinction between climate and weather is on stark display right now as NASA and NOAA scientists announce that Earth experienced the warmest year on record in 2015 while at the same time the mid-Atlantic region is bracing for a blizzard.

Weather is local, climate is global.  Weather is short-term, climate is long-term.   A single local weather event, like a blizzard in Washington, DC, is not an indicator of what is happening to the planet on a global scale.

NASA and NOAA announced yesterday that 2015 was Earth’s warmest year since record keeping began in 1880.  NASA reported that the average surface temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, “a change largely driven by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.”

Climate change is hotly debated in political circles, primarily over whether it is human activity or natural causes at work.  Exactly one year ago, the Senate voted 98-1 in favor of a statement that “climate change is real and not a hoax.”  The one vote against was cast by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).   However, the Senate then rejected by a vote of 50-49 a statement that “climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”  The key point of dispute was the word “significantly.”

NASA and NOAA get caught up in that debate because they collect and analyze climate data from instruments in space, in the air, on the land and sea.  Republicans in the House and Senate criticize NASA’s investment in earth science research ($1.9 billion in FY2016) arguing that such research should be done by other government agencies, like NOAA, while NASA focuses on space exploration.  However, some then criticize NOAA when it seeks funding for climate sensors to fly on its satellites because they want NOAA to focus on weather, not climate.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a strong supporter of NASA’s earth science activities, many of which are led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD.  She also supports NOAA, which has its campus in Silver Spring, MD and its satellite operations center in Suitland, MD, though cost growth on NOAA’s satellites has resulted in some sharp rebukes by the Senator.  She is a key figure in maintaining funding for NASA’s earth science program, in particular, and her pending retirement at the end of this year could complicate the agency’s efforts to sustain those activities.

The announcement yesterday was made by Gavin Schmidt, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), and Thomas Karl, Director of NOAA’s Centers for Environmental Information.  GISS is located in New York City, but is managed by GSFC. Karl’s center is in Asheville, NC.   They said 15 of the 16 warmest years on record have been since 2001.  The other was in 1998.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, both former astronauts, said in a joint statement that the “direction of the long-term trend is as clear as a rocket headed for space:  it is going up.”  Praising the collaboration between their two agencies, Bolden and Sullivan called the announcement “a key data point that should make policy makers stand up and take notice — now is the time to act on climate.”

NASA and NOAA work extensively with other countries as well in collecting and sharing environmental data.  At a meeting of the steering committee for the Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) Decadal Survey at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine yesterday, Steve Volz. head of NOAA’s satellite office, presented a slide showing all the countries involved in space-based earth observation (including space weather) that share data with each other.

Credit:  U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Meanwhile, as for the blizzard, the Washington DC area is bracing for a historic storm.  One airline (American) has already cancelled flights for Friday afternoon and Saturday.  The Washington area’s public transit system will shut down at 5:00 pm ET Friday for Metrobus and 11:00 pm ET for Metrorail and not reopen until “at least” Monday.   If you are planning to come to DC this weekend or early next week, be sure to check that you can get in and out and your meeting or other event is still taking place.  The blizzard warning lasts through Sunday at 6:00 am ET and if the snow accumulates as much as forecast — 18 to 24 inches — it is very likely everything will be closed on Monday, too (and perhaps after that). 

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