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March in January! Or Is It Mayday?

by: Joel Achenbach    7 January 2007

Never has good weather felt so bad. Never have flowers inspired so much fear. Never has the warm caress of a sunbeam seemed so ominous. The weather is sublime, it's glorious, it's the end of the world.

January is the new March. The daffodils are busting out everywhere. It's porch weather. Put on a T-shirt and shorts, fire up the grill, blast "Rastaman Vibration" into the back yard. Everyone out for volleyball! The normal high for this time of year is 43 degrees; yesterday's high at Reagan National was a record-breaking 73. And yet it's all a guilty pleasure. Weather is both a physical and a psychological phenomenon. Meteorology, meet eschatology. We've read the articles, we've seen the Gore movie, we've calculated our carbon footprint, and we're just not intellectually capable anymore of fully enjoying warm winter weather. Just ain't right. Ain't natural. Cherry blossoms during the NFL playoffs? Run for your lives.

"Amazing, but it makes me think we might not be here too much longer, because of global warming," said Laura Ingoldsby, a grad student getting ready for a jog on the towpath at Fletcher's Boathouse.

"I think it's a bit scary. It's too warm," said Ellie Motazedi of Bethesda as she paused during a bike ride.

"Days like this, I worry about global warming, and we're not doing anything about it," said Coby Dolan, an attorney basking in the sunshine on the porch of the clubhouse at the Hains Point golf course. Let the record reflect that he did not appear to be suffering.

At the U.S. National Arboretum, horticulturist Scott Aker has been keeping an eye on a Magnolia zenii: "The buds are ready to pop." They mow the meadows in winter when the ground freezes solid, but it's still soft out there. Last year's petunias are still going strong in Aker's yard --and there's no serious winter in sight.

Bulletin: A Washington Post editor nearly drove into a black bear Friday night in Prince William County. Official word from the authorities: "Oh yeah, it's so warm, they can't hibernate."

Bulletin: British scientists say there is a 60 percent chance that 2007 will be the warmest year on record.

Bulletin: Ski resorts are struggling to open in the Alps.

Bulletin: Palm trees are growing around a tiki bar in Antarctica.

So maybe we made up the last one. Still, we don't need anyone to tell us that some computer model in some climatologist's office is showing that a doubling of atmospheric carbon will lead over the next century to approximately 3 degrees Celsius warming in the average surface temperature of the planet, etc. Because we've been outside. We can detect climate change epidermically.

What if those climate models are wrong, because they're insufficiently dire? Everyone's suddenly shifting from models to observations. Look: Big ice shelf breaking off an Arctic island. Look: Greenland melting faster than the Wicked Witch of the West.

"Is it really a broadly based area that's seeing particular change? The answer is yes," says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. "From Europe, the East Coast, north to the Arctic and across to Siberia, there's a very large swath of the Northern Hemisphere for the months of September, October and November that [were] exceedingly warm . . . "

So it's bad. Except for one thing. What you might call, at the moment, the Denver factor.

Denver got four feet of snow in December. The third big storm blew in Friday. Snowdrifts of 10 feet! An automobile-snuffing avalanche in a mountain pass west of town! In Denver, January is still January.

Because what we are experiencing and what Denver is experiencing are both part of a thing called weather, not climate. Climate change is real, but it's a background phenomenon, the cicada-song white noise on the horror-movie soundtrack, distinct from the thuds and screams and moans of specific weather events.

"It's very dangerous to blame climate for weather," says Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University.

But he doesn't let climate change off the hook when discussing our warm winter.

"No, we didn't cause it, but we made it more likely," he concludes. It's like rolling loaded dice in a craps game.

But Dennis Feltgen, a National Weather Service meteorologist, says climate change isn't the culprit. It's El Nino. Warm water in the tropical Pacific, changed wind patterns, lots of balmy air blowing our way from the southern United States.

"We're in an El Nino, which has absolutely nothing to do with global warming," Feltgen says. "It keeps a lot of the cold air locked up in Canada, and makes the West Coast of the United States stormy, which we've seen, and makes the southern one-third of the country wetter than normal."

And for some, El Nino is dandy.

"Keeps the hurricanes away and the cold winter away. I'm all for it," said Colin Offner, golfing happily at Hains Point.

Bulletin: Cooler weather is imminent. The weather will be almost normal, briefly, before all hell breaks loose again