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Unusually Warm Winter Might Be Climate Trend of the Future, Say Scientists

Don Cook
Flickr Creative Commons

The National Weather Service’s weekend forecast calls for temperatures to drift closer to normal for this time of year. But, earlier in the year, temperatures nationwide were nothing like normal.

The National Climatic Data Center says the first three months of 2014 were the second hottest for Salt Lake City in the 67-year record books. Temperatures were 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual for January thru March. Meanwhile, temperatures in the East and Midwest were among the coldest on record.

“That’s interesting for two reasons,” says Kevin Werner, western region climate service director for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

“One is, we’ve had this very persistent pattern with the jet stream ridging over the West Coast and troughing over the West Coast creating this temperature dichotomy between the western states and the eastern states,” he says. “The second reason I think it’s interesting is because it’s quite different from normal. And that’s consistent with lots of the projections we’ve heard for climate change and the increased variance and increased variability in the system.”

Werner and other scientists studying climate note that this year’s odd trends don’t prove global warming. But they say the pattern does follow long-term trends that scientists expect with climate change.

Gabe Bowen is an associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. He has a new scientific paper in the journal Nature Communications. It shows how, over thousands of years, curvy jet streams have often meant cold winters in the East and mild winters in the West.

“The patterns that we’re reconstructing,” he says, “if they continue or accelerate in the future, would mean that we would be more likely to see these types of events like we’ve seen over the last three months more frequently and/or they would be more extreme when they do happen.”

Both Bowen and Werner say this is information can help leaders who preparing for the climate of the future. Water agencies might want to store more water for big droughts. Power companies might want to upgrade their lines to anticipate more and bigger heat waves.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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