The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Spirit of ’76

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Occasionally, I get a great idea for a blog entry and the information just isn’t readily available–but the search is still interesting.

My current idea is, in honor of July 4th, to talk about what the climate was like in the nascent United States in 1770’s as an illustration of how things have changed since then. What was “normal” for our nation’s founders and how much of that is still normal now? While a lot of the detailed climate data we have now wasn’t being recorded back then, there should be enough to put together some kind of picture. For example, if Boston Harbor was normally iced over in the winter there would be some record of that.

Unfortunately, I’m having trouble finding the information I need. That doesn’t mean the information doesn’t exist, it just means that online articles covering a similar topic do not rank high on the two search engines I used (Duck Duck Go and Google) with the search terms I could think of.

What did come up was mostly climate change denial sites. Since these sites often (not always) misrepresent or distort data, I do not want to use them as sources. I’m not sure why this happened–a reference to the 1700’s seemed to be doing it as though, for some reason, that timescale is more popular among this group of writers than among the group I want to hear from? Or, perhaps there is something about the algorithms of both search engines that they prioritize climate denial sites? Frankly, I’m puzzled and disturbed by this second possibility. Someone should look into it. Maybe I will, but not this week.

Maybe if I just kept digging, looked through more pages or results or tried more and different search terms that I’d find what I’m looking for. It is also possible that just nobody has yet posted anything that frames the data the way I want. If so, to answer my question, I’d have to do at least some of my own analysis–and I might do that, just not this week.

Here’s how it would work.

Thomas Jefferson kept a detailed record of the weather for decades on end. Essentially, he invented the modern weather station. That does cover the right time period, but only for one location. His record could be supplemented by correspondence from the period, since people often talk about unusual weather and usual weather patterns could be deduced from that. Planting and harvest dates would also be useful and are probably recorded in diaries and correspondence. Which crops were grown where might be useful, but you’d have to be careful with that, since factors besides climate also influence that farmers grow. Ice cores and other long-range climate records could provide estimated global averages for context. Old maps could show how coastlines have changed, plus there are historical records of sea levels in some places.

The results might be dramatic. When I consider that there haven’t been any cooler-than-average Mays since I’ve been alive (and that’s relative to the 20th century average) and that one of my teachers has recorded a rise of annual low temperatures in Putney, Vermont of twenty degrees in twenty years (that is, twenty years ago the coldest nights of the year were usually around -20° F and now the coldest nights are around 0° F), it’s clear that we don’t quite live in the same world our grandparents did. How much more different was the world that created the United States in the first place?

Change, all by itself, isn’t necessarily bad. As climate skeptics are fond of pointing out, the climate is always changing, it always has and always will. What we’re facing now is problematic because it is rapid and because it isn’t going to stop until we stop maiming the atmosphere. So it’s not like comparing the climate of 1776 to our own will likely be all that frightening.

The thing is, though, that we humans have very adaptable minds and we get used to things easily. Sometimes in July I have a hard time even really believing it was ever winter (did I really used to wear long pants? How? Why?) let along wrapping my mind around the year-to-year changes I’ve seen in my lifetime. Whatever is happening right now seems normal.

A reality check from 1776 might do us all some good.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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