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« CRS Report: 'U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Streamgaging Network - Overview and Issues for Congress' | Main | TGIF! Weekly Water News Summary 27 February - 5 March 2021 »

Thursday, 04 March 2021


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Elaine Hanford

We humans tend to subdivide time into units that are scaled to our lifetimes: days, weeks, months and years. The media encourages us to think that any deviation for the 30-year weather averages represents climate change. Modern technology has refocused our attention to still smaller units of time as it is not uncommon that we become impatient when it takes more than a few seconds for our computers or cell phones to connect or download information. And NOAA promotes this approach.
Yet the time scale of climate which is better measured in geologic time. geologic time is culturally relevant. While not easily grasped, the varied temporal spans of geologic time (e.g., the period since the last glacial maximum, rates of evolution, or the length of time it takes to wear down a mountain or replace a lost species) offer perspectives of practical use to our everyday lives (Cervato and Frodeman 2012), who note:

“Nor can we begin to adequately understand our economic and environmental challenges—the end of the age of oil; the prospect of future climate change; the loss of biodiversity; the fatality of current rates of consumption— without the perspectives of deep time. Finally, geologic time presents a fundamental challenge to many in terms of its implications concerning the place of humanity in the greater scheme of things.”

The Holocene (our current geologic epoch) is defined by the end of the long-term drying and warming trend that marked the end of the last major ice age. Since about 9,000 years ago, the average northern hemisphere temperature has fluctuated over periods measured in hundreds or thousands of years. The warmest interval persisted between about 6,000 and 8,000 years BP. Following the Medieval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age dropped the average northern hemisphere temperature about 2 degrees Celsius. Average northern hemisphere temperatures have been warming, bringing us out of the Little Ice Age in the 1800s and into our current warm period that is not as warm as previous Holocene warm intervals.
Weather is the shorter-term fluctuations that occur within a climatic regime on a daily, monthly, seasonal, decadal, or century-long intervals, perhaps even a longer time interval. For weather, the mean or average conditions are calculated, by convention, as a 30-year average updated every 10 years, with the most recent installment covering the period from 1981 to 2010.
The media conflates variations in weather with climate change. The media further emphasizes that statistically derived weather averages are “normal.” But “normal” has societal connotations (and denotations) and can vary according to perception, experience, culture, politics and period of history.
Our weather records in the United States date to Colonial time in the East, but in the Western States, a network of weather (typically temperature and precipitation) observers linked by telegraph began to be established in the 1850s. The US Weather Service was not established until 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grand signed the Joint Congressional Resolution into law under the U.S. Army Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce. Our systematic recorded history of weather began 150 years ago and weather records in the Western States represent an even shorter time interval.
If for example, we look at eastern Oregon, then recent "global warming" temperatures of 2014-2015 are the same as the average annual high temperature of 1934, with 5 degree Fahrenheit temperature fluctuations over the intervening interval (including from 1981-2010).
So, let's hope Congress DOES NOT read this CRS In Focus report....they make enough stupid decisions without the sort of misinformation put forth by NOAA on what constitutes weather vs climate.

Cervato, C. and R. Frodeman. 2012. The significance of geologic time: cultural, educational and economic frameworks. Geological Society of America Special Papers 486, 16 p.

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