UNRELIABLE WITNESS

For the past three days – Friday through Sunday – the high temperatures (F) here in Chicago have been 65, 70, and 62. It has been spring, essentially. Those numbers might make people in the South want to grab the parka; here they had me and most of the city heading outside in shorts and t-shirts. It was great. It was also, of course, totally bizarre. February is the traditional month for weather that makes you want to drink bleach in Chicago. February is the month during high school in which we could count on a cancellation or two per year because the pipes were frozen. February in Chicago is gray, cold, windy, and miserable. I'm convinced that the term "blustery" was invented by someone standing outside here in February.

Since the winter has been warm as a whole, this weekend alarmed more than a few people. It's great, but…what gives? For giggles, I spent 15 minutes finding old National Weather Service data for Chicago in February dating back to 1990. The year is arbitrary and represents the limit of how much I cared to continue looking up older years. For each year I plotted the highest and lowest temps recorded in February as well as the monthly mean temp. Here's a quick chart followed by a table showing the same data:

This oddly warm weather is definitely on the upper end of normal for the past three decades, but it's hardly unusual. The 2017 data, as the table shows, are almost identical to, for example, 1999. Compared to more recent very cold years like 2014 and 2015, this year is bizarrely warm. It's not the only unusually warm February to be found in the recent past, though.

The point is not that "Climate change is fake, man!" Mountains of data demonstrate that it is a well-supported phenomenon. My point is that our memories are extremely unreliable when it comes to remembering ephemeral things like this. I was alive in 1999 (obviously) and I have zero recollection of that warm winter. None. In my mind, what is happening right now is exceptional because February, as I and most people in this area think, is the bone-chilling cold month. It's the peak of winter misery. When we think things like, "Man, the weather is never like this in February!" we're relying on our perception of something we don't actually remember. Nobody actually remembers the weather, save perhaps some kind of Rain Man-esque savant.

In short, our anecdotal evidence for or against changes in climate are not only irrelevant, but also very likely to be imaginary anyway. It is interesting for me to see just how wrong my recollection was, even as someone who generally pays attention to these things. It's a good reminder to stop giving credence to our own impressions and instead to stick to the actual data.

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26 Responses to “UNRELIABLE WITNESS”

  1. jharp Says:

    I'm in my 50's and grew up and lived in north central ohio for 30+ years…..more than 20 years ago.

    My recollection of Feb was we often got almost close to a full of springlike weather.

  2. democommie Says:

    I talk to people who remember weeks on end of sunny weather, in summers I know to have been particularly damp. I also talk to people who remember winters being better or worse than I know them to have been.

    The difference between me and those folks is that they drive everywhere and live in homes that are centrally heated and cooled. They work in offices that are also centrally heated and cooled.

    You want to know what the weather was like a few days ago? When I do, I look at my boots or check to see how many sweaters I've got on.

    It does not surprise me that people know more about oogedy-boogedy Obamandingo's plans to enslave MurKKKa than they do about ANYTHING else.

  3. Katydid Says:

    Like Democommie said, much of the population spends most of its time going from a climate-controlled house to a climate-controlled office via a climate-controlled car.

    Where I live, it seems much of the population is utterly terrified of snow. When there's snow in the forecast, people scurry for the grocery stores and gas stations and call out of work, despite the fact that we rarely get more than a couple of inches of snow at a time. I said about a week ago that the worst of the winter seemed to be behind us, only to hear a chorus of "Nuh-UH! Remember that time eleventy years ago when we got SNOW in MARCH?!?!" Well, yes, I do–we got about an inch of snow and it lasted part of a morning because the ground was warm from all the 60-degree days we'd had.

  4. mago Says:

    Perception is faulty and fickle and we usually get situations wrong even while they're happening. Memory is worse. We live in states of delusion whatever the weather.

  5. J. Dryden Says:

    Faulty memory (a redundant expression) and anecdotal evidence are, of course, a terrible basis for developing opinions, much less policy. Unfortunately, we have developed a culture in which–and honestly, I'm inclined to glance at social media as something worth looking into as a cause–those are the only basis that much of us use anymore.

    Numbers are hard and statistics are abstract and all I know is that I didn't directly benefit from Obamacare and I know this guy whose insurance rates went way up so that, clearly, it is the same thing as slavery, which is a statement I can make because in addition to faulty memory and anecdotal evidence, I base my opinions on having been to high school, rather than having paid attention in high school.

    When James Inhofe (that staggering tool) tossed that snowball on the floor of the Senate, he was the embodiment of this cultural shift. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the recent election, there are a lot of people in this country who prefer to vote according to this kind of opinion. (Though one has to concede that a lot of people on my side of the divide probably base their votes on a similarly shaky foundation. But when my candidate felt herself forced to declare "I believe in Science," she at least acknowledged the existence of the problem.)

  6. Mysteries Of Life Says:

    You can count on a blizzard in Chicagoland now because I officially put away my snow blower this weekend.

  7. Emerson Dameron Says:

    @Katydid:

    Southern California's reaction to rain is similar. Whenever we get serious torrents, as we did this weekend, we can count on chaos not because of conditions, but because of everyone freaking out about them.

  8. c u n d gulag Says:

    It's a much more compelling tale to tell that, way back in your youth, you had to walk to school and back 3 miles every day in your boots, through drifts of snow – UPHILL BOTH WAYS! SUMMER AND WINTER!!! – than it is to admit that you took the school-bus, and it picked you up and dropped you off at or near your home.

    In the near future, people will tell of rides in school-buses that DIDN'T have AC or heating!!!
    Oh, the horrors!

    I know for a fact that the weather in my part of the Mid-Hudson Valley in Upstate NY has gotten a lot warmer.
    When I went to college at Marist – from the fall of '76, until May of '81 – a few of the classrooms looked over the Hudson River. And in the winter months (then, late November through mid- March, I'd say), the ships making their way up and down the river needed ice-breaking ships ahead of them. *
    When I came back as an Adjunct Professor – from '94 to '99 – the river was never frozen-over enough to need ice-breaking ships. I know. I commandeered the same classroom I had, that over-looked the same spot as before.

    * And, anectodilly, according to my friend's late father, back in his youth, before the Mid-Hudson bridge was built, you could drive your car across the river to the other side, all during the Winter months – and a ferry, the rest of the year.
    And this is when cars were pretty much mostly steel – and, as a consequence, very, very heavy.
    Try that today, and you'll be swimming for the shore a few yards out, no matter how cold it may seem to be outside, or how light your car is.

  9. democommie Says:

    I have never ridden a school bus.

    I DID have to walk back and forth to school (and CHURCH) for thirteen years.

    Regardless the weather, whether it was a scirocco, hurricane, tornado (always a mid-western favorite) or -403F cold–5 days a week I made that trek. What was truly scary was that I lived in the Cathedral parish and, at about 222' high, the bell tower–in ther event of an earthquake–coulda hit my freakin' house!

  10. ronzie Says:

    Are you saying I can't believe the memories I have of being thinner, with more hair on my head and none growing out of my ears?

  11. democommie Says:

    @ ronzie:

    Do you suppose that Trumpligula's Cheveux orange might be the result of his combover having a substantial amount of cerumen in it?

  12. Well.....Mostly Says:

    And yet we put people on the witness stand to testify, under oath, about events of months, or years ago. More witness confidence convinces juries. Less, or even "I don't remember" gets mocked as a cover up.
    The only useful approach is I don't know or I don't remember. Then go find out. Look at the data. Extra credit for a personal growth exercise: comparing impressions with what's in the data. Then, assess the accuracy of our own memory. Memory is usually not impressive, as far as I recall.

  13. Fiddlin Bill Says:

    Well for what it's worth, 1999 was a bad year for hurricanes in NC. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Floyd

  14. Kaleberg Says:

    When I lived in New England, there was often a late-January/February thaw with surprisingly high temperatures. New England's weather isn't a patch on Chicago's, but the winters could be pretty harsh with snow and sheets of ice that seemed to never melt. Then, suddenly, it would be spring, light sweater weather, and the snow would melt by day and often refreeze as ice at its leisure. For all its wretchedness, most of the northern tier of the US experiences this thaw, though in some years it might merely be a slight warming while in others a true thaw.

    There has definitely been warming over the years. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the summer weather would usually break in late August. There was suddenly a respite from the grinding heat and humidity of summer In New England, the first trees, usually younger maples, would show the first signs of changing leaf color, and I could get poetical here. There would sometimes be a week or so of hot weather in September, and that phenomenon was known as "Indian Summer". I assume this was some kind of slur originally.

    Then, there was an El Nino year in 1983 and New England had a particularly hot summer, and that summer did not end until late September. It was awful. Weather returned to normal in 1984, but by the late 1980s that break in the heat had moved into September, and by the early 1990s, it have moved into October in most years. I remember returning from a trip to the rain forests of Queensland, not far from the equator, one October and heading up to the hills in New Hampshire and longing for the relative cool and dryness of the jungle.

    P.S. Trump is working on a climate change cover up. Check out the database site:
    http://cdiac.ornl.gov/epubs/ndp/ushcn/ushcn.html

  15. mothra Says:

    Call me Rainman on the weather. I tend to be a careful student of the weather because I commute on a bicycle. Walked to school or rode the bus when I was a kid and in college rode a bike. Definitely have noticed a change in the climate, but yeah, a false spring in February is par for the course. Now, the high temps during the false spring are getting higher, so there is that–and the lapse back into winter is much shorter-lived than it used to be. Also, we used to start getting cold weather in October, with all leaves off the trees by the second week of November. This year it was the second week of December…

  16. democommie Says:

    Fucking house sparrows are already looking to build nests in the space above my porch ceiling. I keep plugging gaps, they keep finding new ones. They are nothing compared to the tree rats which are once again cavorting in my attic….gaàaààaaaaaah!!

  17. JDM Says:

    We often would get chinooks in southern Minnesota in February which would bring unseasonably high temperatures for several days. This was 50-60 years ago. Not that far from Chicago, as the wind blows.

    But yes, perceptions are easily and often inaccurate, and there are weather cycles which we've learned a lot more about in recent decades. That's why climate science uses so many methods to get and doublecheck temperature records from as many places as possible. And of course they clearly show global warming.

  18. Brutus Says:

    As J. Dryden points out, faulty memory is a redundant expression. Problem is, we’re caught in the horns of a dilemma because human thought (combination of perception, memory, and processing) is both pattern-seeking and highly prone to error. Unlike computers, which are designed for digital accuracy and reliability, humans are analogue and evolved for reckless guessing and judgment. Most of the time, we get along just fine with rules of thumb and consensus reality, but that’s certainly not the stuff of science (admittedly, sometimes consensus is hard to break through in science, even with abundant evidence).

    Climate scientists do not rely on anecdotal evidence, though the lay public does. Scientists are also careful to distinguish climate change from the weather; the public conflates the two. Here’s a dataset from the National Centers for Environmental Information:

    https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cag/time-series/global

    So far, climate change has had relatively modest effects on the weather, though the trend is awfully clear. The time frame of greater interest is more than 10k years (paleoclimatology) because the steady state of the last 10k years or so is ending (after the last ice age but before the next hothouse earth) and we’ve embarked on a rapid transition to extreme conditions that are already driving the Sixth Extinction. February’s warm temps in Chicago are a mere eyeblink.

  19. Skepticalist Says:

    Local temperatures and snowfall aren't necessarily the only sign of global warming. (Call it that please. I read that the climate change designation was created to allow skewed debate on the subject) Anyway,

    When a northwest passage opens up because of melting ice or when rising sea levels chase out arctic wildlife, no matter what Inhofe says, it ain't right. My understanding is that the warming may even cool off some areas for a time but the planet a still warmer.

    Of course living south of Buffalo our average snowfall is close to 140 inches but so far as of 2016/17 we are short of 80 inches I believe. It was this way last year as well. Things are unusually warm over here.

  20. Lless Says:

    After a run of bone chilling cold, Novosibirsk has shifted to above average temperatures. The Arctic air mass is moving this way.

  21. mago Says:

    Didn't walk up hill and back barefoot in the snow to school, but did walk or bike about a mile each way from first grade through 12, though high school was closer.
    Memory may be a fool, but winters were more rugged back in the day where I lived in Idaho. My brother who's remained there over the decades reports the same except this year brought a return to the past with heavy snowfall that stayed and stayed until the February thaw.
    Who cares? I must be bored.

  22. jharp Says:

    The apple orchard guys in southwest Michigan are freaking.

    If the buds come out and then later get frozen it's a very big and very costly problem.

    I'd say they are in real trouble.

  23. quixote Says:

    There's an interesting consequence to Arctic warming. Warm air rises (well, it's the Arctic, so maybe I should say "warm" air) and then circulates down further south. At that point the local warm air is warmer than the mass off the Arctic. Because it's warmer than it used to be, the zone where it falls is more southerly than it used to be.

    The second factor is that global warming adds energy to the jet streams, and that makes them meander much more wildly in their north-south flow as they circle northern latitudes.

    Put the two together and you have air that would have once fallen on the Yukon or Siberia now showing up in Boston or Greece and dropping two feet of snow. And, if a specific wave of the jet stream goes far to the north, you can get Gulf of Mexico-type air pulled up to Chicago.

    The globe may warm overall, but the local effect is actually much more extreme weather, cold or hot.

    Not saying that's what's causing this particular Chicago heat wave. I haven't looked at the jet stream maps, but that would tell you.

    When I was young and foolish, I assumed global warming meant warming, peaches in Alberta, that kind of thing. It came as a surprise to me to find out that, no, it meant more extremeness everywhere.

  24. democommie Says:

    @jharp:

    Something similar happened in Upstate NY, last year. The apples and pears were okay, but the peach harvest was zero.

  25. The Pale Scot Says:

    I remember there being the threat of "freezes" threatening the citrus crops in FL every couple of years when i was growing up in the 70's.

    I haven't heard that in decades. Now that I'm down here, there seems to be one day of fall, one early morning of winter, followed by a day of spring, then the humidity goes back up to Vietnam levels. I'd pay money for a few days of 30's F just to knock the bug population back.

    This year especially. Usually have gotten a couple fronts that get the Gulf going enough to be worth going for a swim , not yet this year though.

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