The Met on the cold weather

The British meteorological office (The Met) has weighed in on cold weather in North America and parts of norther Europe (see their briefing here).  See their map (bel0w) indicating that most of the world is WARMER than usual and that the cold wave  is restricted to a relatively small terrestrial area.

…not cold everywhere in the world. North-east America, Canada, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and south-west Asia have all seen temperatures above normal – in many places by more than 5 °C, and in parts of northern Canada, by more than 10 °C. [see the map below]

Is it colder than average?

The mean UK temperature for December was 2.1 °C, making it the coldest for 14 years and colder than the long-term average for December of 4.2 °C. However, December was one of only two months in 2009 which had a below-average mean temperature.

What does this say about climate change?

Climate change is taking place as the earth continues to warm up.

In the UK, 2009 as a whole was the 14th-warmest on record (since 1914). This above-average temperature trend was reflected globally, with 2009 being the fifth-warmest year on the global record (since 1850).

The current cold weather in the UK is part of the normal regional variations that take place in the winter season. It doesn’t tell us anything about climate change, which has to be looked at in a global context and over longer periods of time.

The map shows that while it has been cold in Northern Europe, other parts of the world have seen above average temperatures.

Met director Richard Betts also posted an essay on the BBC on the current weather that also addresses the ongoing confusion over weather and climate (here).  Ill paste most of his essay below.

Recently, I gave a talk on climate change in my local village hall in Devon, and not surprisingly I was given a hard time.

In fact, it started two days before that. Cut off from work by the snow (which, incidentally, had been forecast with almost pinpoint accuracy), I was out with the kids and being teased by the other dads.

“Where’s all this global warming you’re always on about, ha ha!”

The usual stuff, leading to the usual somewhat nerdy discussion on the difference between weather and climate, which was then cut short when one of the children crashed their sledge and asked if we had got that on video to send to a TV show such as You’ve Been Framed.

Of course, we are seeing the same comments in some parts of the press and on Twitter, from those who jump on any bit of cold weather to say it proves that global warming is not happening and we’re all a bunch of idiots (or worse).

No matter how many times we say that “global warming” means a rise of average temperature across the world, decade by decade, and not every year being consistently warmer than the last in every place on Earth, there are still those that get this mixed up.

Yes, we have had the coldest December in the UK for 14 years and now we are having a big freeze in early January; but the UK covers less than half of one thousandth of the Earth’s surface.

Last year was actually the fifth warmest year on record as far as global temperatures were concerned.

The four warmest years were, in ascending order, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 1998. The last decade was the warmest on record, followed by the 1990s and then the 1980s, so the world is definitely warming up.

To be fair, people often make the same mistake but in the other direction, and link every heatwave, major flood, drought and famine to global warming.

Of course, we know that these things happen anyway, even without climate change – they may happen more often under a warmer climate, but it is wrong to blame climate change for every single event.

Climate scientists know this, but still there are people outside of climate science who will claim or imply such things if it helps make the news or generate support for their political or business agenda.

It’s easy to blame the media and I don’t intend to make generalisations here, but I have quite literally had journalists phone me up during an unusually warm spell of weather and ask “is this a result of global warming?”

When I say “no, not really, it is just weather”, they’ve thanked me very much and then phoned somebody else, and kept trying until they got someone to say yes it was.

Even if scientists themselves are not blaming everything on climate change, it still reflects badly on us if others do this.

We cannot simply say it is everyone else’s fault; we need to be very clear about what can be used as evidence for or against climate change.

Long-term, large-scale trends and the overall statistics of extreme weather events can and should be part of this evidence base. Individual weather events, from heatwaves to big freezes, cannot be used either to prove or disprove climate change.

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