Strange weather points to the potential impact of global warming

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Climate scientists stress that isolated weather events and short-term trends do not necessarily have a relation to the Earth’s overall climate. But even cautious scientists and people skeptical about climate change might feel a stab of worry about the weather of 2015.

If the planet is getting warmer, as an overwhelming majority of scientists agree, then the year just past gave a stark preview of what may be in store if the nations of the world cannot halt or slow the trend.

Some of the most vivid evidence of altered weather patterns came at year’s end. Storms with hurricane-force winds lashed and flooded Northern Europe. Tornadoes typical of spring came through the South’s tornado alley in early winter. The Mississippi River, usually low in winter, is so swollen from relentless rain that it is flooding parts of the Mississippi Valley.

In North Carolina and along much of the East Coast, the Christmas season arrived amid temperatures in the 70s, confused trees and plants started blooming and the month entered the record book as the warmest December ever – ending a year that was globally the hottest ever. Western North Carolina struggled with drought most of the year and now, like the rest of the state, has too much rain. In the Triangle last year, the annual rainfall was 57.08 inches – more than a foot above normal.

Scientists say much of the strange weather can be blamed on the climate pattern called El Niño, an irregularly occurring climate change caused by the appearance of unusually warm water in the central Pacific Ocean. The current version of the cycle is one of the strongest ever. While El Niño may explain the increase in rain and temperatures, it’s possible that its intensity is being fed by the warming of the planet’s atmosphere.

A warm, wet winter might not seem a bad thing for those who dislike cold weather, and everyone welcomes lower heating bills. But there is another side to that pattern – heat and drought. And that is when the real price of climate change becomes clear.

Phil Badgett, the lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Raleigh, said people might have enjoyed wearing shorts in December when temperatures were 11 degrees above normal. But the same phenomenon in July could be deadly. North Carolina’s record high is 105 degrees, he said, but if December’s pattern were applied to summer, the record could push toward 115 degrees.

“If you average 10 degrees above normal in July, now that is going to be a real problem, and in some place it’s going to happen,” he said. “So it is kind of alarming.”

It’s encouraging that last month’s Paris climate summit produced international agreements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing global warming. It’s discouraging that many in Congress and North Carolina’s leadership still have not seen enough change in the weather to recognize the threat.