Global warming's hand in our country's wacky weather
Saturday, February 25, 2017, 5:16 PM - Not just the safe topic of conversation anymore, the weather is the one thing everyone in southern Ontario and Quebec has been talking about in 2017.
"February is the new May."
"Thunderstorms aren't supposed to happen yet."
Across the country over the past few weeks the talk has been temperature swings of 57 degrees in Saskatchewan, the snowiest winter in 10 years for the B.C. South Coast and 80 cm of car-burying snow in the Maritimes.
"This weather is so weird. What’s going on?"
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Is this the result of climate change? When all-time February record highs are broken, is it because of global warming?
Comparing climate and weather
Climate and weather are related, but they're not the same thing. The best way to understand the relationship is to think of climate as the atmosphere's personality, and weather like it's mood. Your personality is shaped over years, it tends to change slowly and is the sum of all your moods – both the averages and the extremes. In the same way, climate change and global warming are measured over decades and centuries and reflect changes in the averages and the extremes of weather.
But can we say that a 19oC day in Toronto in February is the result of global warming?
The answer is mainly no, with a little yes thrown in. Just like anyone can have a bad or good mood, extreme weather can happen regardless of whether the climate is warming, cooling or not changing at all. We should see wild weather – this is Canada after all. If the weather was plain and boring then something would really be off. The fancy science term for this is natural variability.
However, as the atmosphere warms over the long term, we are seeing more record highs than record lows. The window in which our weather is happening is being shifted just a little bit. It can still get very cold, but it's more likely to get very warm. Another way to think of it is like this – one degree of that 19oC all time February record high in Toronto is likely the result of global warming.
So, how does this square with having gone through the coldest February on record in Toronto just two years ago? It just means the brutally cold February of 2015 likely would have been just a bit more brutal without global warming.
Communicating climate change
The challenge in communicating climate change is that most of us have no connection to it. We all experience the weather, but the weather is our atmosphere's mood on a daily basis. The natural swings in the weather that we experience day-to-day far outweigh longer term trends in climate. Unfortunately, extreme storms and weather patterns are too often blamed entirely on climate change. Sometimes there is evidence that global warming has played a role, but most of the time this attribution is still a minor factor. The science is young in this area, and our understanding of how climate change impacts individual weather events will continue to grow.
We also know that the Earth isn’t warming evenly. Canada's Arctic is warming far faster than southern Canada and the impact on ecosystems and people is more pronounced and noticeable. Also, sea level rise and acidification of the oceans are direct and serious examples of global warming.
But when it comes to the weather that most Canadians experience, the 'why' behind a February thunderstorm has more to do with natural wackiness than anything else. And that 'May in February weather' will seem like a distant memory when you're shoveling snow in March.
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