30 years of above-average temperatures means the climate has changed
These temperature observations make it clear the new normal will be systematically rising temperatures, not the stability of the last 100 years. The traditional definition of climate is the 30-year average of weather. The fact that – once the official records are in for February 2015 – it will have been 30 years since a month was below average is an important measure that the climate has changed.
Some of the most convincing evidence that the Earth is warming is actually found in measures of the heat stored in the oceans and the melting of ice. However, we often focus on the surface air temperature. One reason for that is that we feel the surface air temperature; therefore, we have intuition about the importance of hot and cold surface temperatures. Another reason is historical; we have often thought of climate as the average of weather. We’ve been taking temperature observations for weather for a long time; it is a robust and essential observation.
….We live at a time when the Earth is definitively warming. And we know why: predominately, the increase of greenhouse gas warming due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Under current conditions, we should expect the planet to be warming. What would be more important news would be if we had a year, even a month, that was below average.
The variability we observe in surface temperature comes primarily from understood patterns of weather. Many have heard of El Niño, when the eastern Pacific Ocean is warmer than average. The eastern Pacific is so large that when it is warmer than average, the entire planet is likely to be warmer than average. As we look at averages, 30 years, 10 years, or even one year, these patterns, some years warmer, some cooler, become less prominent. The trend of warming is large enough to mask the variability. The fact that there have been 30 years with no month below the 20th century average is a definitive statement that climate has changed.
The 30-year horizon
There are other reasons that this 30-year span of time is important. Thirty years is a length of time in which people plan. This includes personal choices – where to live, what job to take, how to plan for retirement. There are institutional choices – building bridges, building factories and power plants, urban flood management. There are resource management questions – assuring water supply for people, ecosystems, energy production and agriculture. There are many questions concerning how to build the fortifications and plan the migrations that sea-level rise will demand. Thirty years is long enough to be convincing that the climate is changing, and short enough that we can conceive, both individually and collectively, what the future might hold.
Finally, 30 years is long enough to educate us. We have 30 years during which we can see what challenges a changing climate brings us. Thirty years that are informing us about the next 30 years, which will be warmer still. This is a temperature record that makes it clear that the new normal will be systematically rising temperatures, not the ups and downs of the last 100 years.
Those who are under 30 years old have not experienced the climate I grew up with. In thirty more years, those born today will also be living in a climate that, by fundamental measures, will be different than the climate of their birth. Future success will rely on understanding that the climate in which we are all now living is changing and will continue to change with accumulating consequences.