New Climate "Normal" for a New Year

If you were booked on one of the 4,000-plus flights delayed or canceled due to last weekend's storm, chances are you shook your fist at the sky at least once. True, sitting in an airport with a magazine and a Starbucks latte is not half as bad as weathering a storm must have been in pioneer days, but it's easy to lose perspective when you're already two days delayed with an unknown number of hours to go.

Snow in winter is a given, but was our latest storm "normal?" Was the wind speed and quantity of precipitation something we should have expected? The National Climatic Data Center is attempting to answer that question, as well as a slew of others comparing day-to-day weather with expected norms of years past. NCDC will soon publish a new "normal" for weather conditions based on 10,000 United States locations, an average the Center publishes once every ten years.

Meteorologically speaking, "normal" refers to an average of temperatures and precipitation levels over a thirty-year period. For the 2000-2010 decade, "normal" was based on the thirty-year period from 1971-2000. Excessive rains, droughts and the warming trend of the 1990s alerted climate scientists and people all over the U.S. that what we were experiencing was not "normal." The data set for the new decade will be based on averages from the thirty-year period of 1981-2010, a period that will exclude the cooler 1970's and include the hotter 2000s. The new "normal" will result in less drastic discrepancies between current temperature spikes and precipitation, and could have implications for the general acceptance of climate change. For instance, a particularly hot summer with excessive flooding, like 2010's summer, will not seem so bad compared to "normal." People will not see as great of a difference, and thus will be less alarmed, about what is and what used to be.

Of course, no one likes an alarmist, and there's plenty of data to support the theory that people won't change their behavior anyway, even when it is linked to climate change. (See my post "Changing the Climate Conversation" from November 2nd.) And it is interesting to note that 2010 saw more deaths worldwide due to natural disasters than to terrorist attacks over the past forty years combined. As we walk through airports, we're constantly updated on the color of the perceived "terror alert." But are we warned about climate anomalies? Not until they hold up our holiday plans.

Click here for an interesting take from the CEJournal, with links to editorials and posts discussing the climate change vs. "normal" debate.