by Pete Mazzaccaro
It’s hard not to enjoy warm weather. Everyone in the Philadelphia region, the entire Northeast, really, was treated to a very unseasonably warm weekend. Temperatures climbed into the upper 60s prompting people to get outside, garden, hike or simply sit on porches taking in the winter reprieve. I saw dozens of people in shorts.
It has also, however, made many of us uneasy about climate change, which has become part of the background through which we view all weird weather. Many posts on social media this weekend took the form of an admission to liking the warmth, but also the recognition that it was a sign of something that wasn’t all together good. The phrase I read more than any was, “This isn’t right.”
It’s true that this past weekend wasn’t the first time January temperatures in Philadelphia reached the upper 60s. In the record books, Philadelphia even has a January Sunday that hit 72 back in 1890. It’s not unheard of.
The issue, however, is not in the extremes but in the overall trends. Reporting on the steady rise in average temperatures in the region, The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that our average temperature in the region has been rising as long as there have been records to track it.
Looking at annual average temperatures, Philadelphia experienced an average temperature of 57.3 degrees in 2019. That is greater than the average of the 21st century so far of 56.9 degrees and well above the average temperature through the 20th century of 54.9. That’s a 2.4 degree increase in annual temperature.
Over the last several decades, a threshold for warming that climate scientists have said we need to avoid to trigger significant global changes – from a die out of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to massive polar ice melts – is a change of 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The Inquirer’s numbers indicate a warming equivalent of 1.33 degrees Celsius. Analysis of nearby temperatures indicate, however, that the 2 degree Celsius threshold has already been crossed in much of New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
What this will mean for Philadelphians is not entirely clear, but what is clear is that weather patterns will become more extreme. Heat waves will last longer. Storms will be more intense, meaning floods will be more likely. Crop yields in the state could suffer, and pest populations (insects, etc.) will not die off as easily.
In the face of a global threat like climate change, it’s difficult to feel like you can make a difference. You can recycle, drive a Prius or become a vegetarian, and while that will likely make you feel better, it might not feel like it’s making a dent. One of the most significant things you can do is plant a tree, a natural combatant of greenhouse gasses. Further, we can continue to talk about climate change and support those policies that can and should make a much bigger difference.
While warm weekends are a welcome change from freezing temperatures, we need to make sure it’s not the new normal.