NOAA's new 'normals' are in

Posted: Oct 25, 2014

The numbers are in and—it’s official—our new “normal” is warmer. Starting this month, when a day is declared colder, snowier or hotter than usual, it won’t mean what it used to.

Up to this point, the U.S. Climate Normals have encompassed a three-decade period from 1971 to 2000. A few days ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the country’s lead weather-watchers, released data they crunched on the climate of the 2000s. The new 30-year baseline drops the 70s and picks up the last decade to now cover the years from 1981 to 2010.

NOAA’s ‘normals’ are established with input from thousands of weather monitors nationwide on temperature, precipitation and snowfall, among other data points. The numbers show that the past decade was about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 70s, which raises the 30-year average by roughly one-half degree (the practical impact of which is surprising).

The latest data revealed, in particular, overnight low temperatures in January were several degrees warmer across the country (allowing pests like the pine bark beetle to thrive). They also show warmer summers were a way of life in the western third of the country.

Establishing the new standard is far from an abstract exercise. Power companies, in particular, rely heavily on NOAA’s norms, to project energy use and to establish base rates. Many states regulate gas and electric companies based on the climate normals. They’re also used by farmers, water managers, insurance providers, public land managers and emergency planners, among others.

For the West, the new normals signify a need to ramp up strategies to mitigate and adapt to the changes brought on by our shifting climate.

The importance of the revised numbers was not lost on the Western Governors’ Association, which held its annual meeting in Coeur D’Alene last week. The governors discussed reducing wildfire threats and improving forest health and, ultimately, signed a joint agreement with NOAA to develop and to use scientific data to better prepare for short-term weather events and long-range hazards.

In the “memorandum of understanding,” the 19 governors set aside their political differences and emphasized a proactive approach to dealing with climatic chaos. They agreed to work together, and with other agencies, to identify key vulnerabilities affected by climate including forestry, agriculture, wildlife, biodiversity and air quality. “We recognize the inextricable link between the climate and the natural resources, infrastructure, economies and communities of the West,” says the memorandum.

Some of the leaders were influenced, no doubt, by the their own local disasters (including the recent flooding in the Northern Rockies and the wildfires in the Southwest, both of which NOAA predicted last fall, based on climate data).

Others may have been swayed by the unnerving comments of Harris Sherman, the U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for forests and natural resources, who pointed out that fires are becoming bigger and more destructive (the period from 2000 to 2010 saw 7 million acres per year burn, far more than in previous years, and already nearly 5 million acres have burned this year) due to drought, insect infestations and disease.

There are 80 million acres across the West that need thinning and restoration, and the potential fixes including controlled burns, thinning and pest control, have a scorching price tag. Thinning a forest can cost up to $2,000 per acre and a controlled burn up to $200 per acre. Sherman suggested the federal government could make more actual land improvements by spending less on environmental studies, which total $350 million per year.

Sherman, and the governors, are right—even if we can’t agree on what’s causing our wonky climate, the preponderance of science says it is shifting. While ongoing monitoring of current conditions is still critical, studying the issue to death (of ecosystems and humans) is a real possibility.

This year alone, there have been Western-themed climate studies released by NOAA, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the U.S. Geological Survey, and others, based on scrupulous accounting of historic data, and offering essentially the same takeaway: it’s time for the grown-ups to grab some buckets and start bailing out the boat.

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