By Mike Weilbacher
With the mercury rising in the ’90s most of last week, it already looked like August, the air was heavy and humid. The bad news, of course, is that it’s not just August, it’s not even summer. The solstice is still a few days off …
Welcome to life in the New Abnormal, the climate changing before our eyes.
It’s not just getting hotter, it’s getting wetter. The skies opened last Tuesday night, flooding the area – again – with dumping, a good downpour here in Roxborough, but a surprising 7-inch rain near Coatesville. To the prospect, it was two months of rain in one evening in parts of Chester County.
The number of heavy showers in our region has soared even higher than the temperatures. In the 1950s, the greatest amount of precipitation on the worst day was 2, perhaps 2.5 inches in a day. Nowadays, the amount of rain on the wettest day has jumped by 50%, and we get about 3.75 inches of rain on the wettest day, a significant increase.
Worse yet, the number of heavy showers in Pennsylvania has increased 360% since 1950. Translated, we now get nearly five times as many heavy showers today as we did then. And if you line up the 50 U.S. cities with the biggest increases, we rank 3rd nationwide. We ultimately beat New York, which ranked # 4 with âonlyâ a 350% increase. (Numbers 1 and 2? McAllen, Texas and, oddly enough, Portland, Maine.)
But back to the heat. Climate Central, a Princeton science organization that offers factual data about our climate, noted in 2018 that Philadelphia experienced 16.8 days of warmer-than-normal temperatures. If the climate didn’t change, we would expect the warmer days and cooler days to essentially hover around the norm – cooler days this week balanced by warmer days the next.
In 1970, about 40 days of summer were warmer than normal. Today, 57 days – almost two full months – of summer are warmer than average in terms of temperature.
Also in 1970, the first 85-degree Philadelphia day arrived in mid-May; today, it arrives at the end of April, on average almost two weeks earlier than in the past.
Similarly, in 1970 we only suffered from four days of heat above 95 degrees. Today, we’ve added five more days of those sweltering temperatures, up to nine a year. (This year it looks like we’ve already hit that number).
We currently shouldn’t have days above 100 degrees in Philadelphia – they were rare and unexpected, but by 2050, according to Climate Matters, depending on what happens in the years to come, we could achieve this. marks 10 to 11 times a year. Ugh.
But Philadelphia is part of the bigger world, where a number of disturbing trends are occurring. Although the hurricane season does not officially begin until June 1, the first named storm of this year – Ana – arrived at the end of May, the SEVENTH year in a row a named storm formed before the opening of June 1, a rarity which has now become a trend. This June date was not chosen at random: it was then that the ocean surface temperatures were finally warm enough to generate the energy needed for a hurricane. Today, the ocean surface is warm enough in May.
California, the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Plains and much of the Southwest are in the throes of severe drought. For California, it’s business as usual, unfortunately, as it has happened in 13 of the last 22 years. The breadbasket of much of the country and the world, California is drying out, last year’s record-breaking wildfires burned four million acres and this year’s dry conditions started a month earlier than expected . A
Lake Mead, the huge reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, is at an all time high. “It has fallen 140 feet since 2000,” Reuters reported last week, “almost the height of the Statue of Liberty from the torch at the base, exposing a tub ring of whitewashed embankments.”
Farmers are giving up and abandoning their fields, Nevada is restricting lawn watering over much of Las Vegas, and the governor of Utah has literally asked the people of his state to pray for rain. Not sure that “thoughts and prayers” will cure our climatic ailments.
A 2020 study published in the journal Science soberly reported that 2000 to 2018 was the second driest 19-year period in the Southwest in at least 1,200 years.
Finally, the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere reached 419 parts per million in May, its highest level in more than four million years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week. After dropping last year due to lockdowns caused by a pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions have started to rise again as economies open and people return to work and travel. “The recently released data on carbon dioxide levels in May shows that the global community has so far failed to slow the build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere,” NOAA said in its ad.
For context, the last time CO2 levels exceeded 400 parts per million was during the Pliocene era, when global temperatures were over five degrees warmer and sea level was 30 to 80 higher than it is now.
But back to Philadelphia. Heatwaves in early June shouldn’t be a thing, and storms pouring 7 inches of rain shouldn’t be either. This is not normal. Or expected. Or average.
Yet it is the New Abnormal, which, if we ignore it, will only get worse. Chew it on as we cautiously head into, hopefully, a pandemic-free summer.
Mike Weilbacher runs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.