Our climate is beyond hot

Our climate is beyond hot
© APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

June 21 is the first full day of astronomical summer — and meteorologists all over the world have declared it #ShowYourStripesDay. On this day, expect to see your TV meteorologist sporting blue, white and red striped ties or pins or even custom dresses.

The stripes are a clever visualization of the changing temperature of the planet created by Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading. The blue color on one side shows that conditions in the early part of the 20th century were colder than the long-term average. The white that pops up in the middle represents temperatures close to average, and the red at the tip of the tie or the edge of the pin means warm. When viewed in this way, the trend in global warming is striking — the red that starts to pop at the end (roughly 1980) as global warming really kicks in.

It’s natural to want to talk about warming in the summer. This is when we are fighting to get small children to wear sunscreen and debating whether to turn up the air conditioning. We are all hyper-attuned to extremely hot conditions. Hot summer days, or more generally, record high temperatures are a solid way to track our warming planet.

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But climate change is more than just hot days. Warming trends are apparent in all seasons, though they vary in strength from season to season and place to place. Each place has its own warming stripes pattern.

Climate change is also more than just temperature. Water is an integral part of the climate cycle of the planet. When the planet warms up, more ice melts into liquid water and more liquid water evaporates into vapor. The increase in evaporation means that dry areas like the Southwest get drier. But at the same time, the extra water vapor in the atmosphere also increases the chance of intense rain that triggers destructive flooding — or in the winter, big snowfalls that bring regions to a standstill for days.

Climate change is more than just physics. The physical changes impact ecosystems, causing flowers to bloom earlier (with more pollen in the air and more allergies) and causing plants, insects, birds and fish to move north.

Climate change is also about us. Intense heat has a direct impact on human health, and we are seeing more days when it is dangerous to work outside. Higher temperatures also intensify air pollution. Hot weather and bad air are especially dangerous for people with preexisting risk factors like heart disease, asthma, or diabetes. Climate change is causing more ER visits and rising healthcare costs.

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Efforts like #ShowYourStripes have helped people see the trends that are banging around our planet, to the point where 72 percent of Americans now acknowledge that the climate is changing. Now, we need to help people see that climate change is increasingly connected to their lives in complex and surprising ways.

We also need to help people see that there are solutions— both to blunting some of the impacts of climate change and for reducing carbon pollution that is causing it. Problems on this scale are rarely easy to tackle, but this one is different.

First, we know how to start fixing this one, with well-established science and technology.

Second, thanks in part to creative approaches like warming stripes, people know and care about fixing it.

Third, lots of the solutions are win-wins that also clean the air, create jobs, and grow our economy. 

The question facing all of us is whether these solutions will be implemented fast enough to avoid a future with even darker red stripes that will break the color scale. 

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.

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.