Climate extremes

A report released by the National Resources Defense Council offers’ evidence that it claims shows worsening climate change in America: the worst drought in 50 years, wildfires burning 9.2 million-plus acres and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.

In 2012, there were 3,527 monthly weather records broken for snow, heat and rain across the country, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Sixty-nine records were broken in Pennsylvania.

The new highs for recorded temperature, rain or snowfall were set only by a few degrees or less than 1 inch of extra precipitation, and the council defined record-breaking as having exceeded the monthly maximum for heat, rain and snow over the past 30 years, or if 2012 exceeded a record for fire, drought or flooding.

A 1-degree difference, or an extra few flakes is not enough to conclude that climate change is getting worse or that there is anything to fear in the coming months, experts said.

Across Pennsylvania, five snowfall records were broken in five counties, 24 heat records were broken in 12 counties and 40 precipitation records were broken in 21 counties.

Four of those occurred in this area.

In Johnstown, a new rainfall record of 2.6 inches was set in July, breaking a previous 1.57-inch record set in 2005.

In Ebensburg, data collected near a sewage plant showed a new 3.44-inch rainfall record made in October, breaking a 2.82-inch record set two years ago.

At Raystown Lake, two records were set for highest minimum temperature in July. The first occurred July 3, with a record of 70 degrees. That record was broken the next day with a minimum temperature of 72 degrees. The data does not show any previous records, although The Weather Channel’s website puts the average July low temperature at 63 degrees and the high at 84 degrees.

There were also five large wildfires in the northern and eastern parts of the state.

Tim Dolney, earth sciences professor at Penn State Altoona, said there are a number of factors should be examined to put the information in perspective, including climate patterns El Nino and its counterpart La Nina.

The two patterns are periods of temperature and air surface pressure variations in the Pacific Ocean that occur every couple of years and cause extreme weather conditions.

He said both climate patterns, as well as other natural phenomena like changing ocean temperatures, the jet stream’s position and changing seasons, all contribute to the weather.

Accuweather meteorologist Jack Boston said it’s not difficult to pick out a handful of years besides 2011 and 2012 that were exceptionally hot, like 1911, the Dust Bowl years 1933 and 1934, 1955 and 1988.

“People that want funding for political reasons, they will look at a much narrower space of time,” he said. “The atmosphere goes through cycles.”

According to the National Weather Service, by the time the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season ended Nov. 30, it had produced 19 named storms, 10 of which became hurricanes – one of them the major Hurricane Sandy. The average season produces 12 storms.

What makes these incidents special, Dolney said, is that natural disasters happen every year and affect people. Because there are so many people and many of them have near-constant access to news, it seems like more and more disasters are occurring.

“You don’t hear about hurricanes that don’t make landfall,” he said.

With the World Meteorological Organization easily making it halfway through the alphabetical storm-naming system every year, most of the storms go unnoticed, he said.

With high population density in coastal areas, the potential for devastation from natural disasters is high. The more people who are involved, the more the story gets covered, Dolney said.

Both Dolney and Boston said the way weather is recorded also has changed and improved, so the data produced are more accurate than it was in the 1860s when temperatures first were recorded.

Anyone who says the polar ice caps are melting faster now than at any other time in history can’t prove their statement because satellite-imagery technology doesn’t go back far enough to compare the information, Boston said.

Dolney admitted that people may play a small role in how the climate is changing, with an unfettered carbon footprint and damaging habits that hurt the ozone layer and cause pollution, but Boston pointed out that laws to require cleaner air and water have improved conditions dramatically over the past 30 to 40 years.

“Look at Pittsburgh,” he said. “There were days [in the 1960s] there was so much smog … it darkened the sky” and people had to light their way with street lamps and car headlights.

“You never see that happen anymore,” he said.

Looking ahead, Boston said arctic air moving south will produce colder temperatures in the northern plains and northeastern United States.

According to the National Weather Service, the weather today is expected to be mild, with partly cloudy skies, a high of 28 degrees and a low of 24 degrees.

Over the weekend, Saturday is supposed to be sunny with a high of 46 degrees but with a 40 percent chance of snow overnight into Sunday.

Boston said there is a chance of snowfall for the next week, with a significant blast of cold air coming down toward the end of the month. From then into February, temperatures may drop to highs in the mid-teens and lows near zero degrees.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.