Monday, July 30, 2018

Normal Is Gone Forever

"The old records belong to a world that no longer exists"
- Dr. Marty Hoerling, Research Meteorologist
NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory

It has been a remarkable summer across the Northern Hemisphere, with high-temperature records being set at locations in North America, Asia, Europe, and North Africa.  Now that we are well into the fire season, a pall of smoke generated by large wildfires hangs over much of the western United States, as evident in yesterday afternoon's GOES-16 satellite image.  

Source: CIRA
Will we ever return to normal?


Although the climate, especially on regional scales, has always exhibited variability, we are now accelerating into a future in which the planet will be warming at a rate not seen since the emergence of human civilization. 

Further, while this warming may occur in fits and starts rather than at a steady rate, the idea that what we are currently experiencing is "just a cycle" is pure fantasy.  We will also not settle around a "new normal" for at least the next few decades, and even that assumes we get our greenhouse gas emissions under control quickly.  

The reality is that we have poked the climate bear with a hot poker and it is not going to calm down anytime soon.  If we curtail greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, perhaps we can get this thing under control in the latter half of the 21st century, but right now, that's looking unlikely.  

So, it is time that we all get used to a world of remarkable change, that we give up on the idea of a stationary climate, and we rise to meet the challenge posed by rapid change.  

If you want an example, look no farther than the western U.S. wildfires.  Yes, the lack of precipitation this past winter probably wasn't due to global warming and wildland management, development patterns, and climate variability have contributed to the mess we're in, but the fingerprints of climate change are in the ashes.  Global warming is shifting the weather in ways that we are seeing longer fire seasons, increased fuel aridity, increased acreage burned, and more extreme fire behavior (see, for example, Abatzoglou and Williams 2016).  

And here's a sobering thought.  The train has just left the station.  The fire season of the future is longer, hotter, and drier.  If you think 2018 is bad, fast forward to a drought period around 2048 or 2078.

Normal is gone forever.  The sooner we accept that and build a weather and climate resilient society for the future, the better.  


  1. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the melting of ice in the arctic regions and its impact on Thermohaline circulation which could ripple into changes in the western climate. Or am I reaching?

    1. Far enough outside my area that I can't give you a quick answer as I would need to investigate. This is a topic that is being explored as it is very relevant to understanding regional climate change and some aspects of global climate change as well.

  2. The new normal is not normal at all. It's unfortunate; we have a huge infrastructure built up around the old climate, and big chunks of that will change.

  3. We always look at the the CO2 levels for our climate change problems. We need to also look at the solar cycles of the sun. We won't be able to stop the planet from warming if it's the sun causing it

    1. I don't know who you mean by "we" but climate scientists have certainly looked at the sun and solar cycles. The sun is not responsible for recent climate change and there is extensive research to support this conclusion.

      Here's a whole chapter on it and other natural and anthropogenic contributors to climate change:

      Or, you can look at this:


  4. What is the current jet stream pattern, and what has to change to end this,miserable hot spell and bring us some rain. We are in a significant water shortage from the combination of poor snowpack and high ET.

  5. Thanks for the post as always. I wonder if contributing to our society's shameful (non)reaction to climate change (Straight denialism aside) is that the normal shifts ... am I mistaken, or is the "normal" we see on the local TV news a rolling 30-year average? Have you ever heard talk of a campaign to report the "twentieth-century average" instead? I would love to see this category become a thing on the news and in newspapers.

    1. In general, 30 year averages are used and they are updated about every decade. Most "normals" that you see today are based on 1981-2010. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the use of a recent 30-year average was based on instructions from the International Meteorological Organization (now the World Meteorological Organization) nearly 100 years ago.

      In this usage, normals are based on a thirty year average. I know that's the definition, but I've never liked that word. Nor do I like using a single value to define "normal" when variability about the mean is normal.

      There are many fish to fry. I've decided to catch and release this one and focus on other issues.