Eugene Robinson may have an enemy in the headline writing department at the Washington Post.  In yet another of his serial railings against climate-change deniers (his description, not mine), the headline of his article read Crazy from the heatIndeed Eugene, I would say you are becoming undeniably so.   That little joke was too fun and easy to have become available purely by accident.  Here’s a bit of what Robinson says:

All right, now can we talk about climate change? After a year when the lower 48 states suffered the warmest temperatures, and the second-craziest weather, since record-keeping began?

A reasonable person might ask, what sort of metric has been devised through which we might measure the craziness of weather? 

To Robinson’s meager credit (against a ledger full of debits), he later notes that the upper one state (Alaska) was actually cooler and wetter than average.  Remember children, the issue is global warming, and all those who, like Robinson, hold a US-centric view of the world not withstanding, the lower 48 ain’t all of it.  Robinson’s US-centrism is something akin to pre-Copernican geocentrism; it really is the case that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, and it really is true that there is a whole lot more of the globe than comprise the 48 contiguous American states between Canada and  Mexico.  Adding Alaska alone to the territory in question would increase the amount of the globe’s coverage by about a fifth (but that still would capture only a small percentage of the total).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (a forebodingly Orwellian name if ever there were one–as if the ocean and atmosphere could be administered by government fiat) report by its National Climate Data Center is the basis for Robinson’s article.  Here’s what they actually said about 2012’s temperature:

According to NOAA scientists, the average temperature for the contiguous U.S. for 2012 was 55.3°F, which was 3.2°F above the 20th century average and 1.0°F above the previous record from 1998. The year consisted of the fourth warmest winter, a record warm spring, the second warmest summer, and a warmer-than-average autumn. Although the last four months of 2012 did not bring the same unusual warmth as the first 8 months of the year, the September through December temperatures were warm enough for 2012 to remain the record warmest year, by a wide margin.

The average precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. for 2012 was 26.57 inches, 2.57 inches below average, and the 15th driest year on record for the nation.

Did you catch that last part?  It cooled off in the latter half of 2012!?!  But, but, but…how can this be?  Did mankind suddenly decrease his output of carbon dioxide?  “No, silly, this is the result of natural climatic variation”, the Anthropogenic Global Warming acolytes would undoubtedly retort.  Then why isn’t a really warm and really dry start to 2012 not also a natural climatic variation, a reasonable, rational, non-AGW-believer blogging in the attic might reply?

It is not surprising that a federal government program, ever mindful of how important headline-making research is to keeping the money spigots open, would devise a metric that purports to measure the craziness of weather.  People, i.e., taxpayers, love to imagine theirs is the worst weather ever, an extension of the much larger impulse for every generation to seek confirmation of its natural belief that its own times are the most exceptional and extraordinary of all that have gone before.  Now the NOAA has provided them an index that purports to prove it, the NCDC’s US Climate Extremes Index.  Considering that 2012 is touted as the hottest and one of the driest on record for the contiguous US (the records go all the way back to 1895–when the lower 48 was still missing Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona), and temperature and precipitation extremes are included in the Index, it is no wonder that the NCDC of the NOAA lists 2012 as second on its list of US Climate Extreme years.

The U.S. Climate Extremes Index indicated that 2012 was the second most extreme year on record for the nation. The index, which evaluates extremes in temperature and precipitation, as well as landfalling tropical cyclones, was nearly twice the average value and second only to 1998.

What sort of index that accounts for temperature and precipitation extremes wouldn’t show 2012–the hottest on record in the contiguous US and the fifteenth driest–as one of, if not the most, extreme?  Does the index really tell us anything we don’t already get with average temperature and average precipitation numbers?  And why include land-falling tropical storms?  Is the quantity of tropical storms somehow determinative of the extreme nature of the weather?  It only took one Katrina to make 2005 a really extreme year for losses due to weather.  Temperature/precipitation extremes and landfalling hurricanes must have low or no correlation, as 2005, the year in which Katrina hit, was easily the most devastating year of landfalling hurricanes in at least a century.  Here’s the top ten US weather/climate severe events according to the NCDC’s US Climate Extremes Index for 2012:

Rank Event
1 Hurricane/Post-Tropical Storm Sandy
2 Contiguous U.S. Drought
3 Contiguous U.S. Warmest Year on Record
4 Record Wildfire Activity
5 Multi-State Derecho
6 March 2nd-3rd Severe Weather Outbreak
7 Alaska Cold Winter/Snow Records
8 Near-Record Low Great Lakes Levels
9 Contiguous U.S. Snow Cover
10 Hurricane Isaac

The events were chosen by “…a panel of weather/climate experts from around the country.”  Let’s just go down the list.  Hurricane/Post-Tropical Storm Sandy was not even the most devastating hurricane to hit Long Island/New Jersey in the last hundred years.  That distinction goes to the Long Island Express in 1939.  And even the NOAA admits that landfalling hurricanes were not all that significant in 2012–no major hurricanes made landfall at all.

#’s 2, 3, 4 and 8 are simply different aspects of the same severe “event”–the drought, and accompanying heat, that parched much of the Midwest this summer.  The drought, severe as it was, still did not exceed that of 1930’s Dust Bowl era.   If there is a drought in the Midwest, whose rainfall either drains into the Mississippi or the Great Lakes, is it surprising to find that the level of water in the Great Lakes drew close to a record low?

Alaska’s severe cold and record snow are not included in the temperature and precipitation totals for the contiguous US, yet Alaska is included when considering the US Climate Extremes Index.  Some might call that cherry picking.  And what of that big country sitting between the lower 48 and Alaska?  Why not include Canada in all this, as Canada is just a line drawn on a map, geologically speaking.  Except for the Great Lakes, there are no geological features separating Canada and the US, so the weather ought to be quite similar.

But what was happening in 2012 weather the globe over?  According to the NOAA’s State of the Climate Global Analysis (which is really about weather, and not climate), the January-November period in 2012 was the eighth warmest in records going back to 1880, which is incidentally about the time when the Little Ice Age is figured to have ended.  Of course, AGW proselytizers claim that the cause of the Little Ice Age was decreased human populations, due to what mechanism (perhaps reduced agricultural yields because of the cold?) one can only imagine.

The takeaway point is that making claims about temperature and precipitation and storm extremes on a global scale requires examining more than just what happened in the lower 48 states of the US, and must include a greater time horizon than just the hiccup of geologic time that Western Europeans have populated the area.   Caterwauling over the weather in only the lower 48 in one year is myopic and narcissistic, let alone utterly irrelevant scientifically so far as an inquiry into global climate trends is concerned.   There are no meaningful climate trends discernible in a single year in a particular, quite small section of the world.  The earth has been around for some 4.5 billion years and, in aggregate, experiences all sorts of weather “extremes” at any given time.  There are almost always places that are extraordinarily warm or cool, rainy or dry, at any given time. 

The climate” in my little corner of the universe (Alabama) was quite mild last year, with no real extremes to speak of.  Winter and spring were warmer than average, but not extraordinarily so, and summer was as predictably miserable as always.  Autumn came a bit earlier and cooler than usual, but not remarkably so.  Through it all, there were no landfalling hurricanes or monster tornadoes plaguing the area, quite an improvement over 2005 and 2011, respectively.  Things were benign here.  And solely evaluating my little region for temperature, precipitation and storminess makes as much sense and carries nearly the same validity as doing so for only the lower 48, or any other discrete landmass on the globe, when trying to ascertain global trends.  A global phenomenon must be evaluated globally, including the three-fourths or so that comprise the oceans and lands not inhabited by humans.  But nobody really cares about the weather or climate, except in the right here and now, a truth not overlooked by government agencies administering the oceans and atmosphere, or by opinionists in the Washington Post.