The Climate in Emergency

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

Warm Winter We’re Having (Really!)


When some wag points to mountains of snow and ice and asked “where’s global warming?” a well-informed person counters “It’s actually ‘climate change.’ The climate is changing, with some places getting warmer and others getting colder.” Well, almost.

First, it’s still global warming; the globe as a whole is getting warmer. Second, the United States is not in some magically contrarian pattern of coldness. We’re getting warmer, too. Really.

The US is dealing with the same pattern we had last winter, where unusual (sometimes record-breaking) cold in the East is balanced by unusual (sometimes record-breaking) warmth in the West–more than balanced, actually, since the country as a whole just had its 6th warmest December and January on record. Stephen Colbert’s brilliant tweet, “global warming isn’t real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate,” springs to mind.

But it’s a little more than that.

The same large-scale weather pattern is causing both extremes, so that the cold of the East and the warmth of the West are linked. We’re cold because they are warm. Also, even the east might not be as cold as it seems. There is this principle, of course:

From XKCD 1321 "Cold"

From XKCD 1321 “Cold”

It actually is unusually cold in the East at present, since we’ve set a few new records, but it isn’t quite as unusual as it feels. More importantly, even in the East, this winter as a whole has not been anywhere near as cold as the last few weeks make it seem. December, in fact, was quite warm all over the country, which is why the winter as a whole has not set any records for cold, even in the Eastern states.

Not too long ago, this winter actually seemed very warm and dry to me here in Maryland–was I wrong? Or was January not that cold, either? I looked up a few figures for Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Portland (Maine) and found that for each of these cities the temperature over the month was colder than the historical average, but only by one to three degrees. Each city had whole weeks of unusually warm temperatures, alongside the cold ones, and each city spent most of the month being more or less average.

So, if someone wants to know where the warming is, you don’t have to tell them that actually climate change makes some places colder. All you have to is tell them to remember Flagstaff, Arizona, which just had its warmest February on record. Or tell them to remember December, which, even in Boston, was slightly warmer than average–on Christmas Day the high there was sixty degrees.


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.

2 thoughts on “Warm Winter We’re Having (Really!)

  1. Pingback: How About that Weather? | The Climate Emergency

  2. Pingback: New Year, New Normal | The Climate in Emergency

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