Window to the world
What climate change looks like in Nevada
A string of tornados. Major international floods. Record-breaking wildfires across the Southwest. And—far less destructive but more noticeable to Northern Nevada residents—a freakishly wet and chilly May, making it the spring that never was. It’s left many to scratch their heads and say, “Maybe there’s something to this climate change thing.” If climate change were happening in Nevada, what would it look like, and are we seeing it now?
To the second question, the Desert Research Institute’s Dr. Kelly Redmond, says, “Yes, I think we probably are.” Redmond is deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center. He compares recognizing climate change to noticing signs of aging. Every once in awhile, we have some episode—we discover we can’t party as hard as we used to, or we have a wrinkle, a gray hair, an illness—and we realize that while we don’t see it every day, we are undoubtedly aging. We don’t notice global warming every day, either, but a vast amount of data shows the Earth is warming, and the effects of it are both subtle and blunt. Sometimes climate change looks like a raging wildfire, sometimes like a butterfly where it never was before.
Natural disasters are a normal part of weather, but climate change can give the weather an extra “oomph,” as Redmond says. Yet, are we noticing these disasters because they happen more often, or because Doppler radar and a ubiquitous news media bring it to our attention more frequently? So we look to the data, and the people who track it, for perspective.
Redmond says everybody should be skeptical of data by itself. When he first saw temperatures on research thermometers rising, he thought something was wrong with the thermometers. But even with new thermometers and placement of them, evidence of warming remained. He’s also seen evidence of snowmelt occurring one to three weeks earlier than it did 50 years ago. Lilacs and honeysuckles are blooming earlier. The biggest fires in the history of the Western U.S. have been in the past 10 years. Pine beetles in Canada, previously kept in check by cold snaps, have jumped the continental divide and are headed down the East coast. Chipmunks, mice and voles have moved up in elevation from where they lived 100 years ago. Most butterflies are also slowly moving north.
“All these bits and pieces of evidence, all these compasses, are basically pointing in the same direction. Maybe one or two of the compasses are broken. But if they’re all pointing in the same direction, you pay attention. This is very much like solving a crime. There’s a standard of proof in criminology, and we should have some kind of standard of proof in our head for when we decide to believe something or not. And then, are you willing to change your mind based on the evidence you see? I think most people’s minds can be changed by what they see. If we listen to what the world’s telling us, we’ll get it. The question is, will we get it fast enough?”
Skeptics point to cold snaps or record-low temperatures and say, “See, there’s no global warming.” But, wonders Redmond, could that record-breaking freeze have been even colder without global warming?
“In Baltimore, when there was a huge snowstorm, those very days were some of the warmest days on the North Pole,” says Redmond. “You have to be careful interpreting the whole world from what you see out of your front window.”