We're starting to normalize extreme weather

According to forecast models, much of the contiguous U.S. is about to be hit with an unusual late winter burst of Arctic cold. Perhaps even more alarming is that we’re all getting used to such extremes, a new study warns.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, in a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say the public’s perception of climate change may be skewed by a tendency to recall weather conditions going back only two to eight years. As a result, extreme weather events are quickly adopted as the new normal.

“There’s a risk that we’ll quickly normalize conditions we don’t want to normalize,” lead author Frances C. Moore, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy, said in a statement. “We are experiencing conditions that are historically extreme, but they might not feel particularly unusual if we tend to forget what happened more than about five years ago.”

To study public perception to extreme temperatures, the research team analyzed more than 2 billion weather-related tweets created by Twitter users between March 2014 and November 2016. They found that when temps dipped below or exceeded perceived norms, users tended to generate the most tweets. However, if the event repeated itself over a period of years, the number of related tweets quickly dropped off, indicating a general acceptance of these new extremes.

According to Moore, such acceptance without alarm is a classic example of the “boiling frog” metaphor.

“We saw that extreme temperatures still make people miserable, but they stop talking about it,” he said. “This is a true boiling-frog effect. People seem to be getting used to changes they’d prefer to avoid. But just because they’re not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not making them worse off.”

Return of the Arctic plunge

With the U.S. predicted to face yet another swath of extreme Arctic air in the early days of March, it will be interesting to see if Twitter reacts as strongly to this late and unusually large disturbance of cold as they did to earlier polar events. According to computer models, temperatures could run anywhere between 20-40 degrees below normal over the course of several days for one-third of the country.

As shown in the animation below, the late cold blast is being pushed far into North America by a mass of definitely-not-normal extremely warm air above the Arctic Ocean.

As for the rest of the month, NOAA’s three- to four-week prognostic outlook shows that while the central U.S. will continue to experience below average temperatures, the east and west coasts should begin finally thawing, with above-average temperatures leading into the official start to spring.

We’re starting to normalize extreme weather

Researchers say we’re quickly forgetting what’s normal, even as another Arctic blast is set to descend upon the U.S.

Please help keep this Site Going