From spring to winter and back again: Wild weather swings over the last few months

March 2, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 2, 2014

Today, residents of North Carolina’s Piedmont enjoyed a beautiful spring day. The skies were clear, the sun was out and the mercury rose into the high 60s.

Today is Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Tomorrow, the high will be in the mid-50s. (These temperatures are all Fahrenheit, natch.) It’s going to be about 56 degrees around midnight. The temperature’s expected to drop below 40 degrees before 10 a.m. By 1 p.m. on Monday, March 3, 2014, the forecast for Durham, N.C., calls for 29 degrees with a 100 percent chance of precipitation — most likely sleet.

The sleet (traces of rain and snow may also come) should taper off by sunset, around 6:12 p.m. The temperature, however, will keep on declining. It could bottom out at around 15 degrees by the time Monday rolls into Tuesday.

But this isn’t the first time this has happened in recent months. In fact, this will be at least the third time since early December that North Carolina has experienced a wild change in temperatures and weather conditions.

I moved to North Carolina 10 years ago in January. Old North State weather in some ways has always seemed to be more mercurial than in the New York City suburbs where I grew up. Rain in North Carolina seems fiercer than the rain I remember from my childhood. Storms here — even (especially?) violent ones — also move in and more out much faster than seems normal.

Native Tar Heels have a saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes; it’ll change. This slogan, admittedly, is not unique to North Carolina. But it doesn’t much seem like hyperbole.

This winter, though, has been unlike any I’ve ever seen. When it snowed here last month, coating the roads in a thick layer of ice, the 10-day forecast contained something amazing: The promise of temperatures in the high 60s degrees the following week. Two days after the area was iced in, in fact, the Research Triangle had sunny skies and mid-50s temperatures. And if memory serves, exactly one week after the dramatic snowfall, the mercury hit 70 degrees.

I’m not complaining here — not exactly. I’m just pausing a moment here to note how odd the weather has seemed in recent months…and also to wonder if climate change might eventually (soon?) convert this season of wildly varying extremes into the new normal.

I know that much of the continental United States has suffered through a very cold winter. In New York City, 57 inches of snow had fallen prior to the storm sweeping in today, making it the seventh-snowiest season since records were first kept in 1869. Meanwhile, Alaska has seen record-setting warmth this winter.

Climate is hardly static; it can change radically over time, and did so long before humans ever started having any effect on our planet. But it’s frightening to contemplate the changes that may come over the next decade or two. More frightening than that, however, is the likelihood that these changes have been set in motion by human activity.

The thing that’s most frightening of all, though, is that inertia and scientific illiteracy — aided by business and political interests — may prevent us from changing our ways until it’s far, far too late.

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