It’s 17 below (F) this morning in the great white hell we call South Dakota..so of course global warming is on my mind! We’ve got our own Hurricane Alex, in the form of a boy that can be a handful at times. In the meantime, out in the Atlantic, a real Hurricane Alex formed this past week. A hurricane? Forming in January? Since records were kept there have only been 4 hurricanes that have ever existed in the Atlantic in January, with only 2 that actually formed during that month.
It’s a year with a very strong El Nino, so some weather strangeness is to be expected, but Hurricane Alex certainly caught folks by surprise. There’s been plenty of other climate and weather abnormalities in the last several months. On the East Coast, Christmas Eve brought temperatures up into the 70s, with Washington D.C. and New York City both hitting 71 for a high, while Norfolk, Virginia saw a downright balmy 82. Overall, December was the warmest and wettest on record for the U.S. The December strangeness wasn’t isolated to the U.S. In Great Britain, records were shattered for precipitation for the month, while temperatures were nearly 7 degrees (F) above normal. Daffodils were blooming Great Britain in December, a phenomenon that was also occurring across the U.S. East Coast.
Globally, 2015 provided a number of remarkable weather extremes. Right before the new year, the temperature at the North Pole rose above freezing. Late December…North Pole…a place that hadn’t even seen the SUN for months…yet the temperature rose above freezing in an unprecedented event. The year started with record breaking snows in the eastern U.S. Record heat killed thousands in India and Pakistan. Two tropical cyclones hit Yemen within one week..Yemen had never before been hit by a tropical cyclone of the magnitude of the first to hit. Seabirds in Alaska and elsewhere in the Pacific were dying in massive numbers due to hunger, most likely caused by El Nino and the climate weirdness. Heat waves have been baking Australia recently after a year punctuated with both droughts and floods.
In any given year, there will always be weather extremes. There will always be droughts, floods, severe storms, and heat waves. However, weather and climate models are unequivocal in predicting a strong increase in weather extremes due to climate change. Droughts will become longer and more severe. Heavy precipitation events will increase, along with subsequent flooding. Storm intensity will increase. The models that predict these changes are now clearly being reinforced by actual empirical evidence.
Over the coarse of a human lifetime, simple observation can also reinforce the impacts of climate change, including from the aspect of being a birder. There are already well known range expansions and contractions of species that are almost certainly tied to climate change in part, such as Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Red-bellied Woodpecker all shift in range to the north in recent decades. Just from an observational standpoint, one trend I notice are more and more Western Meadowlarks staying in South Dakota to overwinter. When I started birding over 15 years ago (just a heartbeat in terms of the climate change timeline), I would occasionally run across a single Western Meadowlark or perhaps a handful as I birded the grasslands in the central part of the state in winter. It seems like every winter, that number rises. On a recent birding trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and areas just to the south, I came across hundreds of Western Meadowlarks over the course of the day.
Climate change? It’s tough to attribute one short-duration phenomenon to climate change. As I said, up until this point, it had been a relatively mild winter in terms of temperature, so perhaps you’d expect more Western Meadowlarks to hang around. But it hasn’t just been a one-year event, it’s been a longer term, visible trend that I’ve noticed just through casual observation.
As a scientist, I admit I do find it fascinating to live through this particular period in time. It’s amazing to watch these kinds of changes, and realize the incredible impact human beings have on the planet. Fascinating…amazing…and also damned terrifying and outright depressing at times as well, know that what you’re observing is completely unnatural.