Can we blame climate change for February's record-breaking heat?
Jeremy Deaton
at 11:13 AM Feb 22 2017
No longer your friend
Science // 

Think Eastern Australian got blasted by a record-breaking heatwave in the last couple of weeks? Spare a thought for the US. They're supposed to be in Winter. And yet...

February is usually marked by snowflakes, sleigh bells, and warm woolen mittens. But this year's silver white winter prematurely melted into spring. 

Check the weather readout from Oklahoma.

Earlier this month, the Sooner State endured an uncommonly hot spell. Mangum, Oklahoma saw temperatures close to 100º F, setting a state record. The average February high in Mangum is 56º F.



Oklahoma on February 11th, 2017


The heat comes courtesy of the Pacific jet stream, which has delivered a deluge to California and warmer weather to the rest of the country. Texas, Kansas and Colorado all saw record-breaking heat. Toasty weather and moist air have fueled tornadoes and thunderstorms in Middle America.

The jet stream would deliver rain to California and warm air to the rest of the country independent of climate change. But it is extremely unusual to see such sweltering temperatures in the dead of winter. Climate change might be making the jet stream effect stronger, but it's also loading the dice when it comes to temperature: carbon pollution traps heat, warming the planet. This, in turn, shifts the entire distribution of temperatures. In other words, the jet stream's hot days get even hotter.


Global warming makes extreme heat more likely.


Cold days become more rare, while warm days become routine. The hottest days — the ones that break records — are almost invariably linked to human influence. In this new climate system, extreme heat is far more likely than extreme cold. Over the last year, the United States has seen more than four times as many record high temperatures as record lows. The heat in Oklahoma is just the latest example.


Many people may welcome a temperate day in February, but warm weather in normally cold months disrupts ecosystems. Trees may bloom after an unseasonably balmy stretch — and then suffer frost damage when cold weather returns. Flowers may blossom and shed their petals before bees arrive to pollinate them. These minor destabilizations have a ripple effect, impacting flora, fauna, and the industries built around them.


Plants are regrowing leaves days or weeks earlier than they typically do.


In Oklahoma, the spike in temperature is particularly ironic, given the state's political climate. Two years ago this month, in a well-publicized and much lampooned political stunt, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma brought a snowball to the Senate floor to highlight the “unseasonable” cold and cast doubt on climate science. 

Amid this February's historic heat, Inhofe would have been hard pressed to find a snowball anywhere in his home state.


Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.

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