Sunny Days Are Here Again — But Is That Good?
Throughout the month of March, you have probably heard stories on your local news about what seems like an early spring and unusually warm temperatures. Across the country, more than 7,700 daily temperature records 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 in the state are now running way ahead of schedule. One of those crops is oats.
Joe Prosacki, a statistician with the USDA, says this time of year Iowa usually has just 7 percent of its oats planted.
"Right now, they're at 58 percent planted," Prosacki 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 April, or even May.
More Than Just Warm Weather
Even with the early warmer weather, that chance of a hit of frost could spell trouble for farmers. But if you've got allergies, maybe you already are in trouble.
"Barring some sort of dramatic snow or change, we probably won't see much relief until mid-summer when things do calm down," says Jim Sublett, an allergist in Louisville, Kentucky. 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.
In Vermont, they're 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," Coombs says.
Every spring, syrup farmers have to move fast because when trees sprout leaves, it changes the chemical composition of the syrup. 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 mosquitoes, more Lyme disease and more accidents, since people are outside more biking, hiking and driving.
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" was, because it was so nice.
"We were breaking records by upwards of 40 degrees in some places," Cullen says, who is also 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 some dramatic like tornadoes, droughts or powerful 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, Texas 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, Cullen says, you see it penetrate into the weather, especially heat extremes, this past March is what she 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 climate change issue is one that the sooner work begins, the better. She says the thing about climate change is that there are time lags in the system, meaning what we're seeing now are 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
This week, the United Nations' International Panel on Climate Change released a report that says we're more likely to face extreme weather events in the coming decades. Things like more intense heat weaves, heavier rainfalls and longer droughts.
The report, however, doesn't focus on things we can do to prevent or slow climate change. Instead, it tells people how to cope better with the 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. 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, Field says. He cites Bangladesh, as an example, in its ability to deal with cyclones.
The small nation in south Asia has had some of the most destructive cyclones in history. Using smart, relatively low-cost strategies like early warning systems, platforms above the storm surge for people and livestock and civilian response teams, Field says the nation minimized the loss of life when Cyclone Sidr hit in 2007.
Though about 3,447 people died in Cyclone Sidr, it was far less than the more than 143,000 that died in 1991, when a similarly powerful cyclone hit the area.
A lack of resources, civil strife and lack of a recent disaster in vulnerable areas are what prevent some areas from implementing some of these strategies, he says.
One thing that is certain is that essentially every part of the world is vulnerable to some kind of extreme or weather disaster, and 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."