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February 18, 2014

The 2013 Climate Summary: an exercise in averages

Reading the 2013 Climate Summary from NOAA requires a basic understanding of statistics.

The state of the climate has been in the news lately. It seems every time the weather makes headlines, the debate over “climate change,” once called “global warming” makes headlines, too. So, what did 2013 really have to show us as far as the state of our climate? It depends on how large of a dataset you consider.

The accompanying map from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, released on January 16th, shows the variations in temperature across the entire globe. According to the report that was released with it, as a whole, “globally averaged temperature for 2013 tied as the fourth warmest since record keeping began in 1880.” So, if you look at whole world, the earth was much warmer than average.

If you look at a smaller set of data – say over the 48 contiguous states, nearly half of the U.S. was in the near average or cooler than average range, and that half included North Carolina. The rest of the country registered warmer to much warmer than average temperatures, but we broke no records as far as the yearly average is concerned.

Take a smaller section of the country, such as the southeast, and about half of that area experienced cooler than normal temperatures. Considering that segment included the Deep South, I’m sure they weren’t complaining.

Looking at North Carolina’s year, we averaged… well… average temperatures. In Raleigh we recorded record high temperatures last fall and early winter, and we also recorded a few record minimum high temperatures (meaning they were the lowest maximum temperatures on record). Remember how it seemed the cool spring barely gave way to a cooler-than-normal-feeling summer? We didn’t make it above 90 nearly as often as we are used to here, but in the end, we were just experiencing an average year.

Most meteorologists would rather keep the politics out of climate studies, but since that doesn’t seem to be the way of things, we’ll do what we can to explain the different ways of looking at it. There’s one thing I will always remember from my first statistics course in college: you can make numbers say whatever you want them to say depending on what context you put them in.

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