Time to add climate to weather conversations

July 24, 2023 3:00 am
South Platte River

Drought conditions in 2022 dried up the flows in the South Platte River east of Ogallala, near Roscoe. (Courtesy Nebraska Governor’s Office)

An editor once told me if I ever filed a turgid think piece on the weather,” he would know I was irrevocably out of ideas.

Sounds about right. That said, the next 725 words or so are not solely about the weather. They are about climate … and change.

Nebraskans rarely pass up a chance to talk about the weather. Conversations about sunny, rainy, stormy, cold, hot, dry, floods, blizzards, tornadoes and more rival Husker football as the No. 1 subject up for discussion in Nebraska.

We measure the snowfall in our backyards, check our rain gauges and watch radar slowly move across our smartphone screens. We share weather pictures on social media and over coffee in klatches from Scottsbluff to South Omaha.

Which is as it should be in a state whose wellspring is agriculture, dependent on the weather like no other industry. Ergo, we talk about it. A lot.

What we dont talk about, however, is climate. As in why the nation is melting and freezing and ducking for cover at rates we havent seen since weve been keeping track.

That includes meteorologists who keep us apprised of impending storms, encourage us to understand the principles of dew points and barometric pressures and help us dress appropriately in the morning. And were grateful. But news on climate change? Bupkis during my daily intake.

Perhaps thats a good thing. After a television meteorologist — while on air — at a Des Moines station discussed climate change and its effects on Iowas weather, he received a death threat. Citing ongoing risks to his family, he ended an 18-year career. Police have charged a 63-year-old man.

As you know, climate and weather differ. But if youre keeping score at home heres what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says: Weather refers to the short-term atmospheric conditions in a certain place, while climate is the average of all that weather over a long period of time. In other words, Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.”

And while Nebraskans like to say that if you dont like the weather, wait 15 minutes,” in the words of the Buffalo Springfield: Theres something happening here. What it is aint exactly clear.”

But its getting clearer. To whit: If you want to talk dry and hot, were at the extremes. Nebraska is ranked fourth in the U.S. for states experiencing drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, every Nebraska county had drought conditions from March 2022 to March 2023. The average number of weeks of drought in those counties was 41.2.

California, ranked third in droughts, has been beset with atmospheric rivers,” which moved its drought coverage from 98% to 36% but at the cost of flooding and landslides. The rivers” accounted for nearly 55 feet of snow in the central Sierras last winter.

Over 600 people nationwide died recently as a heat dome kept the South and Southeast trapped in triple-digit temperatures and suffocating humidity. Hot enough for you?” seemed a cruel joke in places like Laredo, Texas — used to high temps — but where 10 people died in about a week from extreme heat.

The ice caps are melting, the seas are rising, the permafrost thawing and wildfires roaring, giving the skies in some places a chillingly dystopian aura. Climatologists tell us something is happening because of carbon emissions and El Nino, which warms the oceans and affects everything from land temperatures to hurricanes.

I first met El Nino in 1980 while dodging garbage cans racing down Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Los Angeles. A torrent of monsoons and wind propelled them. A home in the canyon slid into the middle of Sunset Heights Drive. El Nino is back, and climatologists say the little ones stay may last a while.

While we celebrated Independence Day earlier this month, widespread reports said we were smack dab in the middle of the hottest stretch of four days since weve been able to measure such things, including the metrics paleoclimatologists find from hundreds of years ago using fossils and ice cores.

Some still deny climate change, insisting the cyclical nature of nature is simply in a hot, dry cycle. They are in the minority. According to research from Cornell University, over 99% of peer-reviewed scientific papers blame climate change mostly on humans. Three out of four of the rest of us — amateur meteorologists included — also believe something is happening here.

All of which makes climate change a subject we should be adding to our endless conversations about the weather.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.