Asking the Weather Experts: Is Warm Winter Evidence of Climate Change?

To date, this has been West Michigan’s second warmest winter on record since 1932. As we all know, a lot has happened since then in the way of CFC emissions and greenhouse gas increases. In light of this year’s unseasonable temperatures and below average snowfall, certain questions come to mind, such as, why is this happening? What is causing these strange trends? Could this have anything to do with climate change? Or does the weather just do strange things sometimes? This is Michigan, after all.

photo by Lisa Jarvis through Creative Commons

Local meteorologists have varying perspectives on the issue but most agree on some level that climate change is occurring and is something that people should be concerned about.

Some experts, such as FOX-17 Chief Meteorologist Peter Chan, strongly believe that humans are adversely affecting the planet.

“I have no doubt that the human species is affecting our weather and climate,” said Chan. “The topic of global warming is emotionally charged. Ultimately, it forces us to look at ourselves and our role in the environment and the earth’s system, and that’s very uncomfortable because it gets to our core values, our religious values, our economic system, it forces us to think about having to change some of these long-cherished notions, and that is not popular because people are too invested in the current economic and political structure.”

Chan highlighted the dramatic declines of low-latitude and mid-latitude glaciers and snowcaps in areas such as the Alps, Glacier National Park, or Mt. Kilimanjaro as evidence of the size of the issue.

“As we’ve seen in the Great Lakes region, the onset of lake ice – especially as measured from, say, Grand Traverse Bay – the date at which the Bay freezes and then thaws in the spring has grown shorter. And this year, right now, Grand Rapids is on its way to its second warmest winter. If things continue as they do, this could be a very significant winter as far as lack of snowfall and mild temperatures, something we haven’t seen since the 1930s.”

The warming is causing noticeable climate impacts, Chan said, noting that the U.S. government has already adjusted the hardiness zone for planting. Many gardeners are discovering that they are able to grow plants much farther North.

“If you cut down one tree in your yard, you are changing the microclimate of that area,” Chan said. “If you cut down a big oak tree, you’re letting light into an area that was formerly shaded, and there may have been certain plants growing there that now can’t because they’re getting full sunlight, and you’ve slightly warmed the temperature of that area…and people don’t think about that because, you know, it’s their property, they might take down several trees, but they’re not the only ones doing this, this is being repeated across the earth millions of times, whether commercially or just for somebody’s own private interest, and you can’t tell me that that’s not affecting the system.”

Chris Gervat of CBS affiliate WWMT believes that scientists haven’t accumulated enough data to conclusively say that global warming is occurring and humans are responsible.

“We don’t have a big enough sample size to know what human beings are doing to the planet and what the effects are going to be,” he said. “The science behind most of this is still growing. I’m not saying that global warming exists. We do have warming and cooling periods. The term global warming kind of bothers me because we are in an interglacial period…temperatures are going up, but I’m not calling it global warming. It’s part of a natural ebb and flow of our climate.”

“Greenhouse gas levels will go up (naturally), but we are making them go up faster than they should and I don’t know what the end result of that will be.”

Julie Winkler, a MSU professor who researches synoptic climatology, applied climatology, and regional climate change, said that it is very difficult to separate out an anthropogenic climate change – a human induced one – from natural climate variability, but when we look at projections using global climate models, they certainly are in general agreement that warming is expected as we go in towards the middle of the century.

Winkler was also hesitant to use the term “global warming” to describe these trends.

“It’s not political,” she said. “Global warming is too narrow of a term. The preferred terminology is ‘climate change.’ It’s a more accurate, comprehensive term.”

According to Winkler, there are many other factors contributing to global climate change besides increasing temperatures, and that the term “global warming” fails to recognize them.

“We know that greenhouses gasses have increased. That’s a black and white issue… the potential consequences are sufficient that everybody should be concerned about this.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s official position, according to Jim Masco, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for West Michigan, is that “there are man-made circumstances that are contributing to increases in global temperature.”

3 replies
  1. Jon Flatley
    Jon Flatley says:

    Although it’s hard to attribute one specific extreme weather event or a warm season to global warming – it’s the accumulating body of evidence (i.e., more frequently warm winters) that points to global warming.

    I’m a meteorologist and I’ve studied the issue and how it relates to weather.

  2. Jimmy Toes
    Jimmy Toes says:

    Perhaps the real question that needs to be asked is:

    “How can we measure the effects of human contributions to climate change better?”


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