4:12pm

Sat April 7, 2012
Environment

Sunny Days Are Here Again — But Is That Good?

Originally published on Sat April 7, 2012 7:41 pm

Across the country, more than 7,700 daily temperature records were broken last month, on the heels of the fourth warmest winter on record.

While it might be time to lie on a blanket in the park, climate scientists are worried. They say all these sunny days are actually an extreme weather event, one with local and global implications.

In Iowa, March was so hot — a record-breaking 84 degrees — that some crops there, like oats, are now running way ahead of schedule.

Joe Prusacki, a statistician with the Department of Agriculture, says this time of year Iowa usually has just 7 percent of its oats planted.

"Right now, they're at 58 percent planted," Prusacki says. "That's because if you plant the crop now, it's going to germinate and grow."

It's hard to say whether that could be good for farmers, since crops could still get hit with frost as late as May.

More Than Just Warm Weather

Even with the early warm weather, that chance of a hit of frost could spell trouble for farmers. But if you've got allergies, you may already be in trouble.

"Barring some sort of dramatic snow or change, we probably won't see much relief until midsummer when things do calm down," says Jim Sublett, an allergist in Louisville, Ky. He says patients have been coming to him with runny noses, itchy eyes and even asthma flare-ups since mid-February, about a month earlier than normal.

"The problem with that is because of the longer exposure, those people may be at risk of having more severe problems as the season goes along," he says.

Vermonters are dreading early leaves for an entirely different reason. Arnold Coombs, a seventh-generation maple syrup farmer, says that when he was a kid, a tree would never be tapped before the first Tuesday in March.

"This year, you had to be tapping by the second week just to get those first runs of sap," he says.

Every spring, syrup farmers have to move fast because when trees sprout leaves, the chemical composition of the syrup changes. As soon as that change happens, Coombs says, the syrup is not very good. The problem with this year is that happened very early.

So production is down and you might see syrup prices up this year. You might also see higher crime, says Martin Flask, director of public safety in Cleveland.

Flask says people are out, it's light later in the day and there are more children playing. Even though, in the long term, crime is trending downward in Cleveland, homicides and burglaries are up compared to this time last year.

"We've seen a significant spike that, in our mind, can be caused by nothing else but the weather," Flask says.

Scientists say we'll probably see more bug bites, Lyme disease and accidents, too, since people are outside more.

How Unusual Is The Early Heat?

Climatologist Heidi Cullen with the research organization Climate Central has been closely following the spring heat. She tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan that it's hard to get a sense of how big of a deal the so-called "warm wave" is because it's so nice.

"We were breaking records by upward of 40 degrees in some places," says Cullen, the author of The Weather of the Future. "It was this really ironic, extreme weather event because it was like, 'I'm loving this,' but at the same time it was incredibly unusual."

When you think of extreme weather, you often think of dramatic events like tornadoes, droughts or hurricanes. It's hard to view a warm, spring day as an extreme weather event, and Cullen says that's one of the challenges of talking about climate.

"Even heat waves, when they're happening in the midst of July or August, are hard to really visualize," she says.

Though scientists are hesitant to link tornado outbreaks, like those that struck near Dallas this week, to climate change, Cullen says it is fair to say that warmer weather creates extreme weather.

If you increase the Earth's average temperature by about 1.4 degrees, which we've done, you see it penetrate into the weather, she says, especially with heat extremes. This past March is what Cullen calls a storybook example of that.

"We expect [heat waves] to last longer, which this one did, to affect broader areas, which this one did, and to be more intense, which this one was," she says.

Cullen says the sooner work begins on the climate change issue, the better. There are time lags in the system, she says, so what we're seeing now is a result of things that happened in the 1980s.

"Because of the time lags in the system, if you wait, you've really got problems," she says. "So it's this exercise in ... trusting the science.

"The science tells us that if we don't do anything about this problem, that by the middle and the end of the century, we're looking at really a radically different climate," she says.

We Are All Vulnerable

The United Nations' International Panel on Climate Change released a report this week that says we're more likely to face extreme weather events in the coming decades. That includes things like more intense heat weaves, heavier rainfalls and longer droughts.

The report, however, doesn't focus on things to prevent or slow climate change. Instead, it tells people how to cope better with the weather disasters it says we're more likely to face.

Christopher Field, a climate scientist at Stanford University, was a top editor on the report. He tells NPR's Sullivan that statistics on disaster loss are both interesting and tragic.

"What you see historically is that the economic losses tend to be greatest in the developed countries," Field says, "but the loss of life tends to be overwhelmingly concentrated ... in the world's developing countries."

That doesn't mean that developing countries don't take smart steps to avoid weather disasters, he says. He cites Bangladesh's ability to deal with cyclones.

The small nation in South Asia has had some of the most destructive cyclones in history. Field says the nation minimized the loss of life when Cyclone Sidr hit in 2007 by using smart, relatively low-cost strategies like early-warning systems, platforms above the storm surge for people and livestock, and civilian response teams,

Though about 3,447 people died in the cyclone, there were far fewer fatalities than when a similarly powerful cyclone hit the area in 1991, killing 143,000.

Field says a lack of resources, civil strife and no recent disasters prevent some areas from implementing these strategies.

One thing that is certain is that essentially every part of the world is vulnerable to some kind of extreme weather or disaster, so being prepared is essential.

"When we look at where the extremes have occurred in the U.S. over the last year, we see them essentially everywhere: droughts in the West, floods in the Northeast [and] tornadoes in the middle," he says. "It really is the case that there is no place on the map that is immune to climate change and disasters."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan, in for Guy Raz.

Our cover story today, nice weather we've been having.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Today's weather had a lot of folks thinking spring has sprung.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And people were...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, our unusually warm temperatures lately have many green-thumbed Iowans already hitting their local greenhouse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: With weather that we usually see in mid-June, folks are getting a jump on sprucing up the outside.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: We're doing the things that we would normally do maybe in late April, early May.

SULLIVAN: Local news from Burlington, Vermont, Des Moines, Iowa, and Cleveland, Ohio. Throughout the month of March, you've probably heard the same stories on your local news. Across the country, more than 7,700 daily temperature records broken last month on the heels of the fourth warmest winter on record. Sure, it may be time to lay on a blanket in the park, but climate scientists are worried. They say all these sunny days are actually an extreme weather event, one with local and global implications. Let's start in Iowa where March was so hot...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: A record-breaking 84 degrees hot, to be exact.

SULLIVAN: Some crops in Iowa are now running way ahead of schedule. Joe Prusacki, a statistician with the USDA, says this time of year, the state usually has just 7 percent of its oats planted.

JOE PRUSACKI: And right now, they're at 58 percent planted. Well, that's because if you plant the crop now, it's going to germinate and grow.

SULLIVAN: Wow. So they planted more than half of their crop already.

PRUSACKI: True.

SULLIVAN: It's hard to say whether that could be good for farmers, since crops could still get hit with frost as late as April or May. And then you're in trouble.

PRUSACKI: You could be in trouble, yes.

SULLIVAN: And if you've got allergies, maybe you already are in trouble.

DR. JIM SUBLETT: We probably won't see much relief until midsummer when things do calm down.

SULLIVAN: Jim Sublett is an allergist in Louisville, Kentucky. He says patients have been coming to him with runny noses, itchy eyes, even asthma flare-ups since mid-February.

SUBLETT: Which is probably about a month earlier. The problem with that is because of the longer exposure, those people may be at risk of having more severe problems as the season goes along.

SULLIVAN: So if you start earlier, you just suffer longer.

SUBLETT: That's exactly right.

SULLIVAN: In Vermont, they're dreading early leaves for an entirely different reason. Arnold Coombs is a seventh-generation maple syrup farmer.

ARNOLD COOMBS: Used to be when I was a kid, you would never tap a tree before what we called town meeting day, which was the first Tuesday of March. This year, you had to be tapping by the second week just to get those first runs of sap.

SULLIVAN: Every spring, syrup farmers have to move fast because when trees sprout leaves, it changes the chemical composition of the syrup.

COOMBS: As soon as that change happens, the syrup is not very good. Now, the problem with this year is that happened very early.

SULLIVAN: So production is down. You may see syrup prices up this year. You may also see higher crime, says Martin Flask, director of public safety in Cleveland.

MARTIN FLASK: Well, you know, Cleveland is normally a cold Midwest city that...

SULLIVAN: Even though in the long term, crime is trending downward throughout the country and in Cleveland, homicides and burglaries are up compared to this time last year.

FLASK: And we've seen a significant spike that, in our mind, can be caused by nothing else other than the weather.

SULLIVAN: Scientists say we'll probably see more mosquitoes, more Lyme disease, more accidents since people are outside more, biking, hiking and driving. Heidi Cullen, a climatologist with the research organization Climate Central, has been closely following our spring heat wave, and I asked her how unusual is this spring heat.

DR. HEIDI CULLEN: You know, I think this past March, it's hard to really get a sense of how big of a deal it was for, you know, colleagues of mine in the National Weather Service. It was crazy. I mean, we were breaking records by upwards of 40 degrees.

SULLIVAN: Wow.

CULLEN: I mean, it was just really ironic, extreme weather because it was one of these rare extreme weather events that you were just like, I'm loving this, but at the same time it was incredibly, incredibly unusual.

SULLIVAN: Because it's hard to view a nice warm spring day as an extreme weather event.

CULLEN: Absolutely. You know, I think this is actually one of the challenges of talking about climate in many ways because even heat waves, you know, when they're happening in the midst of July or August, are hard to really visualize.

SULLIVAN: Right. Because these would be considered normal temperatures just later in the year.

CULLEN: Yeah. I mean, Chicago broke records for April in March. It was incredibly unusual.

SULLIVAN: So these massive tornadoes in Texas this week, we know that scientists are hesitant to link tornado outbreaks to climate change. Why?

CULLEN: We're still studying tornadoes, and they're such small scale events that they're difficult to really embrace and understand specifics of. But at the same time, we're seeing this sort of shifting of tornado alley. It's sort of moving further east. We know that the warm Gulf and these warm temperatures certainly help contribute to the formation of these tornadoes. So...

SULLIVAN: Because some people on the other side say, well, we just report them more. People see them more. Areas are more populated.

CULLEN: Absolutely. It's one of these things where with tornado data, it's really difficult because of, you know, when Doppler radar came along and we've got all of these storm chasers out there, so we've got a natural trend just by virtue of technology and more folks tracking tornadoes. But that is really, I think, an incredibly active field of research right now, and it's going to be really interesting to see what happens there.

SULLIVAN: So is it fair to say that warmer weather creates extreme weather?

CULLEN: Yes, it is. Certain kinds of extremes - I think, you know, one way to look at it is if you increase the Earth's average temperature by about 1.4 degrees, which is what we've done, you see that penetrate into the weather in - especially heat extremes. So we expect heat waves - and you can think of March as sort of a springtime example of a heat wave. We expect them to last longer, which this one did, to affect broader areas, which this one did, and to be more intense, which this one was.

So it's kind of, you know, storybook type of incident that we expect to see more and more of. We also see it play out in terms of rainfall events. So we expect to see more intense heavy rainfall events when they happen.

SULLIVAN: So if it's been a warmer spring, does that mean that we're going to have a really hot summer?

CULLEN: You know, it's funny because intuitively, I feel like a lot of us are feeling that way now. Like, oh, my goodness, if March was this warm, if, you know, December, January, February were warm, we're totally toast this summer.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

CULLEN: And it's not the case. I mean, there's no correlation really across what happens in winter and what happens in the summer. It's hard to say exactly how much warmer the summer will be. But, you know, I will say, the climate prediction center part of NOAA indicates an above average summer.

SULLIVAN: So given all this, are we in trouble?

CULLEN: I think what we have in front of us is a case of an issue where the sooner we get started working on it, the better. The thing about climate change is that there's time lags in the system. So you can argue that the climate change that we're seeing right now is a byproduct of what we did in the 1980s, right? I often hear folks say, let's just wait and see how bad it gets, and that sounds kind of rational.

But because of the time lags in the system, if you wait, you've really got problems. So it's this exercise in trusting long-range forecasts for the future, trusting the science, essentially, because the science tells us that if we don't do anything about this problem, you know, by the middle and the end of the century, we're looking at really a radically different climate.

SULLIVAN: That's Heidi Cullen. She's chief climatologist at Climate Central and author of "The Weather of the Future." Turning globally, this week, the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change released a report. It says we're more likely to face extreme weather events in coming decades, things like more intense heat waves, heavier rainfalls, longer droughts.

But the report doesn't focus on things we can do to prevent or slow climate change. Instead, it tells people how to cope better with weather disasters, it says, we're all more likely to face. Christopher Field, a climate scientist at Stanford, was a top editor on the report.

CHRISTOPHER FIELD: The statistics on disaster loss are interesting and tragic. What you see historically is that the economic losses tend to be greatest in the developed countries, but the loss of life tends to be overwhelmingly concentrated, 95 percent of recent loss of life has been in the world's developing countries. That doesn't mean that developing countries never take smart steps to deal with disasters. However, we've seen dramatic improvement in Bangladesh, for example.

Bangladesh had some of the most destructive tropical cyclones in the '70s, '80s and '90s. And by the time tropical Cyclone Sidr hit in 2007, they'd implemented a whole series of smart, relatively low-cost strategies that really minimized loss of life.

SULLIVAN: What did they do different?

FIELD: Bangladesh had a history of experience, and they really made three kinds of investments. They made platforms where livestock could be raised above the storm surge or where people could gather. They implemented early-warning systems and made sure that people knew that they should move to high ground when storms were predicted. And they also established civilian response teams so that disaster aid was more quickly delivered and much more effectively delivered as a consequence mainly of volunteer efforts. One of the things that's impressive about these investments that Bangladesh made is that they weren't terribly expensive, but they were very effective.

SULLIVAN: Christopher, Bangladesh has made such strides. What cities have not made strides?

FIELD: What we see is two kinds of places where those strategies aren't really being deployed. One is areas so resource strapped that they don't have - you can think of it as the bandwidth to make the investments that are necessary and in areas that have high levels of civil strife, that really tends to be a problem. And the other place is areas that are vulnerable but haven't had a recent experience that have driven home that vulnerability.

SULLIVAN: So if you were to look at a map, where would you point to?

FIELD: The problem with trying to draw a map is we know that essentially every part of the world is vulnerable to some kind of an extreme or a disaster. I think if you had asked U.S. citizens prior to Hurricane Katrina if there was a major vulnerability to a category four hurricane, people would have said, you know, it's a risk, but it's one that we think we have under control.

Once the hurricane occurred, we knew that there were gaps in our preparation and in our responsibility. When we look at where the extremes have occurred in the United States over the last year, we see them essentially everywhere: droughts in the West, floods in the Northeast, tornadoes in the middle. It really is the case that there is no place on the map that is totally immune to climate extremes and disasters.

SULLIVAN: Christopher Fields is the director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: By the way, there are some places still fending off winter. This Easter Sunday, northern Maine could see four inches of snow. Not such great news for all the plants that thought it was spring just a few weeks ago. Stay with us. You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.