What I mean is that the weather is colder than its been recently in the part of the world where I happen to be. The simple answer to those who insist the world can’t be warming while they personally shiver is that climate change involves increased extremes, including the occasional extreme cold snap. But it’s also possible for one area to have record-breaking cold even as the world on average is unusually warm, as has happened in recent years. And it’s possible for conditions to seem unusually cold even while still above the 20th century average, because we’ve grown used to warmer conditions still.
I haven’t checked to see which of these concepts applied to New Years’ Day in Eastern Maryland, 2018.
What I know is that I turned up on Assateague Island for the annual New Years’ Day Beachwalk, which my husband usually leads, and conditions were brilliant, bright, and beautiful. Clear, blue sky, a stiff breeze whipping the waves to photogenic whitecaps, and a windchill of seven degrees.
I want to emphasize that this event is not supposed to be masochistic. It’s not like the Polar Bear Plunge, in nearby Ocean City, where people actually jump in the water on the first of January, no, it’s an educational walk where you get to stroll along with a naturalist, learning about the island’s history, its sand, and its sea shells. Some years over three hundred people show up.
This year, we had 34 people, almost half of them organizers, volunteers, and hangers-on. My husband did his best, under the circumstances, but there was no shelter from the wind anywhere, and people were having trouble concentrating because it was just too cold. He cut the walk in half and brought everyone back to the starting point early for hot chocolate. Then he and I went home and had Chinese take-out.
Everything everybody says about cold snaps in a warming world is true–climate change involves extremes in all directions, it can be cold here but warm elsewhere, and these temps only seem as cold as they do because everything has been so warm of late.
But what happens when we get used to warm weather?
It’s not like I’ve never experienced single-digit temps before–I used to live in New Hampshire, where I regularly biked to and from school in the winter. Cold was normal, and seldom bothered me. I dressed for the cold as a matter of routine. But now…do I need a hat, or is a hood good enough? How thick do my socks need to be? How many layers do I need? I can’t quite remember. I’m out of practice. Give me another week or two of this and it will all come back to me, but Monday morning I wasn’t there yet.
Whether a given temperature is historically normal or globally notable is less important for most people than whether it’s been typical lately. A surprising cold snap in Maryland might involve temperatures that are perfectly normal for Vermont or New Hampshire, but that doesn’t mean the Marylanders have adequate coats, hats, and gloves, nor do they necessarily have lifestyles and habits that make sense in such temperatures. Where a New Englander might have recreational activities that require cold temps (like ice fishing), on the Lower Eastern Shore, this kind of weather disrupts everybody’s plans. Sometimes the surprising cold is dangerous.
The way changing climate works, cold weather doesn’t go away, it just gets less likely. While I haven’t seen any figures on the matter, I’m wondering if rising average temperatures are resulting in more disruption–and more danger–when cold snaps do occur.