66 Degrees in December

February 22nd, 2007

By Jessica Bachiochi

When my family, back home in Connecticut, gets together for the holidays, we have certain traditions.

On Easter Sunday, cousins of all ages and sizes team up and play a basketball game. The annual World Cup soccer match heats up the Fourth of July picnic. The football game, more formally known as the Turkey Bowl, is all we think about during Thanksgiving dinner. And on Christmas, we play ping-pong.

Yes, ping-pong. Usually, December’s freezing temperatures and layers of snow keep the family inside for the day.

This year was different. Instead of going home with a couple splinters from the old ping-pong mallets as battle wounds, I left with a long trail of mud, grass, and blood up the side of my leg.

We spent the afternoon playing soccer. Though my cleats normally go into hibernation towards the end of November, I grabbed them and suited up in shorts and a tee-shirt to break our family Christmas tradition.

***

I wasn’t the only one who left the snow pants in the closet this winter vacation.

Before Ithaca students went home for winter break, the weather in upstate NY was warm and rainy. And students living in the Northeastern United States experienced typical March and April weather over the holidays. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stated 2006 was the country’s warmest year ever.

Freshmen Lindsay Pehmoeller from Poughquag, NY, and Dennis Akey from South Burlington, Vermont, members of the Ithaca Track & Field team spent their month off training outside in the nice weather.

Michele McManus, a sophomore from Enfield, Connecticut, also took advantage of being able to exercise outdoors.

“I liked it, but I thought it was weird because it was supposed to be cold,” she says.

Last year the high in January was roughly 30 degrees colder than it was this year.

“It’s scary,” Pehmoeller says. “It was way too warm for the winter. I like the warmth, but I’d rather have it be normal.”

Ski resorts, like Cortland’s Greek Peak, struggled to open enough trails and make enough snow for operation. The mountain only had one lift four trails open at the end of December. A number of members of the Flatbush Golf Course in Littlestown, PA were still golfing after New Years. Animals, like the black bears, couldn’t go into hibernation.

“It was way too rainy and warm,” Dennis Akey says. “I wanted it to be on the brink of freezing with a lot of snow.”

“We’re just not intellectually capable anymore of fully enjoying warm winter weather,” claims an article in the Washington Post published in January.

***

So what does this mean?

A lot of people came to the same conclusion: global warming.

Nancy Anderson, a senior from Londonderry, NH, disagreed with this theory, despite what her family and friends believed.

“It’s just not possible for winter to be normal one year and the next year be so drastically altered because of global warming,” she says.

Her suspicions, in part, are correct.

Kathryn Vreeland, a climatologist at Cornell’s Northeast Regional Climate Center, along with other experts, knows it took more than global warming to bring on December’s spring weather.

Though global warming is a reality, it doesn’t work overnight.

According to a US News and World Report, the Earth’s average surface-temperature has increased 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. And it’s not selective. Even though the Northeast didn’t have the shovels out through December, four feet of snow blanketed Denver, Colorado.

So who turned the heat up around here?

Vreeland and many other scientists say the culprit was a combination of the North Atlantic Oscillation and El Nino.

The North Atlantic Oscillation is a phenomenon affecting the North Atlantic Ocean that controls storm tracks and westerly winds.

El Nino is a phenomenon that occurs about every five years. It originates as a warming of tropical waters in the Pacific Ocean. These warm waters mix up jet streams and interact with the atmosphere to create a dramatic shift in weather patterns around the globe.

In the United States, El Nino causes an abnormally great amount of precipitation in the West, sends storms through the land stretching from Texas to Florida, and keeps the cold air locked up in northern Canada from seeping into the Northeast.

These two phenomenons are being held accountable for the warm weather we had at the start of the winter season, according to Vreeland and other experts.

So it’s safe to say that global warming didn’t jump into high gear back in November.

“It’s very dangerous to blame climate for weather,” Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, said in an article in the Washington Post.

“It would be an error to say that this one week or this one winter is only due to global warming,” climatologist Jeffrey Shultz said on the Early Show on CBS at the beginning of January.

This doesn’t mean global warming is no longer an issue or didn’t play any role in the strange weather patterns. Kathryn Vreeland believes it is something everyone must be concerned about.

“Global warming could have advanced [the two phenomenons] but there is no way to know for sure,” she says.

Nobody can know for sure. El Nino always has a significant impact across the globe, but climatologists and meteorologists still can’t predict or explain everything.

“Fifty years down the road, we’ll know more,” Vreeland says.

With technology improving more and more each day, it is no question scientists will know more in the future.

As for now, El Nino seems to be ending its run and it shouldn’t be back for at least five years. The temperatures are dropping and it looks like it’s finally time I put my cleats away for the winter. Along with the black bears and the nine irons, they’ll be happy to get some rest.

But as we zip up our winter coats we must not forget about the changes taking place in our environment. The changes may not be happening as abruptly as we thought, but things are shifting and we must be aware.

“If you go around happy-go-lucky [without concern for the environment],” Vreeland warns, “it might just come back to bite us.”

Jessica Bachiochi is a sophomore journalism major who loves 60 degree weather in any month of the year. Email her at jbachio1[at]ithaca.edu.

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