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Weird winter? No such thing, Sebenste says

February 7, 2013
Gilbert Sebenste

Gilbert Sebenste

by Gilbert Sebenste

As NIU’s meteorologist, I have often been asked the following about the weather of 2012 and early this year: “What’s going on here?”

To say the least, after a relatively mild winter of 2011-2012, things got interesting quickly.

Remember March of 2012? It started out cold in the first week, with a 4-inch small snowstorm to start things off, actually giving us above average snowfall for the month!

But then the snow melted, and suddenly, it looked like someone had turned up the sun’s temperature a notch or two. We warmed into the 40s, and on March 12 and 13, we hit 60 degrees, and we wouldn’t drop below that until the last two days of the month, when highs were in the 50s.

In between those two dates, we had an incredible stretch of eight days where highs hit at least 75 degrees; several of them over 80. And, of course, for seven days straight, we had record highs. Farmers were thrilled; they got into the fields early.

NIU campus flood of August 2007

NIU campus flood of August 2007

Things took an ugly turn after that.

March was short on rainfall. No problem; 2011 was wet, and we could live with that. But then March turned into April, April into May – and the rains just weren’t coming. The heat and humidity was, however, and temperatures warmed above average. Then they went way above average.

And the drier it got, the warmer it got. One fed the other, and after the summer of 2012 was said and done, we had little rain to show for it … and a lot of wilting crops.

By September and October, the corn stalks were literally snapping at their bases. From those that managed to produce anything, the corn itself was generally of poorer quality. And while the harvest was a lot better than what could have been, some farmers opened up their corn ears to see not a single kernel of corn on the cobs.

Through January 2013, we had less than 6 percent of our average snowfall, finally tempered a bit by a period of heavier rain at the end of the month.

But when all was said and done, 2012 wound up with almost exactly two-thirds of our average rainfall (65.83 percent). Not to mention the second warmest year in DeKalb history, and of course, a lot of crops that went dead and wells which threatened to run dry.

So what is going on here? Global warming? Something else? Obviously, 2012 wasn’t normal. Or was it? And can we expect more of this in the future?

First, let’s make sure we understand something: there is no such thing as “normal” weather.

One thing that grates on me is when a forecaster gives the “normal high and low.” The proper word is “average,” which takes into account not only the typical temperatures or events we see each year, but also the extremes. Everyone talks about how relatively mild this winter is, but not many will note that we had more than 50 inches of snow each of the previous four winters. In modern history, that has never happened.

NIU campus blizzard of February 2011

NIU campus blizzard of February 2011

Things do occur well outside the average, or the normal, or what we perceive to be normal. In fact, what we think of extremes can be expected. What we don’t know, sometimes, is where those extremes will occur.

Using 2012 as a backdrop, we should realize that just because we have an extreme event, we cannot immediately point a finger toward global warming, El Nino, La Nina, etc.

Although the drought in 2012 was severe, we have seen significant droughts over what amounts to the average lifetime of a person today.

In the 1930s, the so-called “Dust Bowl” years, the drought occurred without a significantly increased CO2 count. From 1950-1956, another severe drought brought dead crops and water shortages to a good part of the country.

More recently, we have seen short-term droughts.

In 1988, the summer was so hot and dry that it killed hundreds of people on a steamy day in Chicago. Weeks of extreme heat culminated with five days having temperatures around 100 degrees, and humidity levels that were seen usually in the tropics. From July 12 through July 16, around 750 people died from the killer heat wave. Again, while extreme, it happened. And it likely will happen again – somewhere.

Finally, I don’t like the moniker, “climate change.” It assumes our climate has been steady in the past. Utter nonsense. It’s always changing, it always has and it always will be.

Thanks to technology, we are recording history much better than we did just 30 years ago. Also, I am reminded that modern weather tracking technology has only been around for 50 years, not even close to enough time to truly figure out what is extreme and what isn’t in many cases.

Let’s stop blaming all really bad weather on man-made global warming. Instead, let’s prepare ourselves before the next drought, flood or tornado happens – because they will. We can always expect them to occur.

And while the averages do tell things about our climate, I’ve learned that in studying current and past weather, a lot of times, there’s just no such thing as normal.

The Voices section of NIU Today features opinions and perspectives from across campus. Gilbert Sebenste is NIU staff meteorologist, employed by the NIU Department of Environmental Health and Safety.