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Goodbye to the 1980s — at least for how we define climate normals

Goodbye to the 1980s — at least for how we define climate normals
© Stefani Reynolds

We won’t tell you how old we are, but we will admit that we remember the 1980s. We remember watching music videos on TV, the Miracle on Ice and the fall of the Berlin Wall. As much as we loved the 1980s, we were excited to move past them. Seriously, who wants to store music in plastic cases? As a meteorologist and a climate scientist, we are also excited that this year we will officially wave goodbye to the 1980s, at least in terms of how scientists define climate normals.

On May 4, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will release the updated U.S. Climate Normals. The new normals are three-decade averages of weather and climate variables such as temperature and precipitation. Scientists at NOAA use data collected from thousands of weather stations across the country to calculate these averages, updating them every decade. The new set of normals will reflect the period of time from 1991 to 2020, replacing the old climate normals from 1981 to 2010. Goodbye, Friday Night Videos, hello TikTok.

While updating 30-year averages of weather data might sound boring, this is a huge event to meteorologists and climate scientists like us. To us, it is like the release of a new Star Wars series, something that will be in the background of our lives for a decade.

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The normals are a powerful tool for understanding both weather and climate change. As a local TV meteorologist, I used these climate normals to help my viewers understand if that day’s weather was hotter or rainier than usual, and by how much for any given day. For example, the climate normals allow us to tell someone in Toledo that last month was unusually warm — more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. But weather forecasters aren’t the only ones who count on these important calculations. The travel industry, utilities, farmers, construction companies and local governments all rely on the normals to make informed decisions.

The release of the updated normals shift our perspective on what average weather and climate conditions in the country feel like. Compared with the previous normals, the new normals show a country that is generally warmer and wetter than it was in decades past. However, the change is not uniform. Replacing the 1980s with the 2010s shows the Southwest getting even warmer and the Northeast getting wetter. It also shows the northern Great Plains getting a little bit cooler.

For most people, this won’t seem like a big deal — variables such as temperature and precipitation will be adjusted by fractions. But to us in the climate change space, this is a moment of pause. It reminds us just how much warming we’ve already baked into our world. If we look at the bigger picture, tracking warming back to the beginning of the century, the amount of change is striking. In the early 1900s, the map of the US was covered with patriotic splotches of red (warmer than average), white (near average), and blue (cooler than average). Now, the country is painted in only hues of red.  Precipitation patterns are less clear cut, but generally wet areas and wet seasons are getting wetter and dry areas and dry seasons are getting drier.

The gradual shifts depicted in the update of the latest climate normals reflect changes in the average conditions. Buried in the averages are big challenges for the people of the United States. These include more frequent extremes in heat and rain, including an increase in the frequency of days that are hot and humid enough to make outdoor activities dangerous. We are also seeing increases in the number of billion-dollar weather disasters including droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and floods. Americans are good at adjusting, and we are good at adapting to changes. But there are limits. The challenges of keeping pace with change may be especially acute in parts of our society that change slowly, like the complex infrastructure that delivers power to our homes or keeps our towns safe from flooding. Failure to anticipate change or even just to keep pace, will make future disasters even more costly.  And for people of limited means, adaptation can be simply out of reach.

As challenging as these things are, the biggest challenge we face is that the changes in our climate are going to continue until we stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We both left our jobs, one of us on TV, one of us in research, to work at Climate Central, an organization whose mission is to make climate change immediate and personal, to help people see how these changes are affecting the people, places and things that we love. Thankfully, the U.S. is starting to get the message —  72 percent of Americans think that global warming is happening and support actions to limit carbon pollution with even more supporting solutions such as renewable energy that can create millions of U.S. jobs.

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As we put the climate of the 1980s into the cassette tape case of history, we are reminded about one other great thing to come from the 1980s — global climate models. Many of the climate changes we have seen in the last decade, including the rise in temperature and the increase in wildfires and droughts, were predicted by these early models. The latest projections reinforce the need to tackle climate change aggressively. This is the defining challenge of our time, and, optimistically, climate change is a challenge that we know how to fix. If there is one lesson we can draw from these updates, it’s that change is truly the new normal. 

Bernadette Woods Placky is an Emmy Award winning meteorologist and director of Climate Central's Climate Matters program. She holds the American Meteorological Society broadcast certification and is a member of the Penn State Meteorology and Atmospheric Science advisory committee and a trustee at the Watershed Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @BernWoodsPlacky.

Andrew Pershing is the director of Climate Science at Climate Central. He is an expert on how climate trends and events impact ecosystems and people and recently led the Oceans and Marine Resources chapter of the 4th U.S. National Climate Assessment. Follow him on Twitter: @Sci_Officer.