Shifting Climate Requires New Weather "Normals"

New weather normals point to warmer average temperatures and more precipitation.

You may be freezing your keester off in the American Southeast, where snow rarely comes; or perhaps you’re surviving the devastating floods now hammering Queensland Australia. Perhaps you’re a Russian firefighter who will forever have etched in your memory the hellish and other-worldly forest fires and heat wave of last summer; or the killer floods last year in Pakistan; or the relentless chain of  hurricanes up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Wherever you are in the world, the new decade brings with it a growing sense that what has until now been extreme is becoming the new normal.

In the U.S. researchers are collecting data that will establish a new definition of what is considered normal weather. The exercise isn’t new – through international agreement, the National Climate Data Center (NCDC) is required every 10 years to release updated precipitation and temperature averages, dividing the country into 10,000 distinct weather regions. Current averages are based on the period from 1970 through 2000. What is significant is that this new ten-year report will drop the “cooler” 70’s (disco music notwithstanding) from the average and add the decade just ended, A.K.A. the hottest decadal period ever recorded.

“There’s pretty big differences between those decades,” said Anthony Arguez, NCDC’s climate normals project manager. “Average temperatures are going to be a little higher in most regions.”

Determining what to expect from normal weather patterns – and how those patterns are changing – is especially crucial for those who must make longterm planning decisions based on weather and climate – from utility regulators to wildlife managers.

And for many dealing at the front edge of weather norms, the speed of change has created a lag in NCDC data that many are relieved to see updated : “Utilities have been waiting for the 1970’s to leave,” says Arguez.

Preparing for accelerating climate change

As climate change accelerates, NCDC must now consider several options on how to best gauge what is considered normal weather. Among the changes being considered is shortening the period average from 30 years. updating the data annually instead of every 10 years, and developing a scale that hinges on 1975, the year Arquez says temperatures began to trend upward.

We should start getting used to extreme weather, because it’s not so extreme anymore – it’s just normal.

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