The Newark community has gone from summer sunshine to seasonal snowfall in a span of just a few weeks, and the campus’s unusual winter has not gone unnoticed.
The Review asked climate experts and students what the unseasonable February warmth means for the planet in terms of climate change.
Joseph Brodie, a postdoctoral researcher at the university studying air quality and wind energy, said it is difficult to say that our balmy winter weather is a direct result of climate change.
“One particular weather phenomenon does not necessarily indicate climate change,” Brodie said.
Brodie explained that global warming doesn’t create warmer weather events directly, but rather increases the likelihood of them occurring, a mechanism he compared to stacking a deck of cards to favor a certain outcome.
Brodie said uncharacteristic weather such as unusual warmth only becomes an issue when it is part of a trend across multiple years.
“As these events continue to happen more frequently it does become more concerning to us as scientists that the problem is not getting better,” Brodie explained.
Eric Hoeflich, a sophomore meteorology and climatology major, sees the warm spells of this winter as potentially problematic, but not immediately worrisome.
“I would say it’s not normal to consistently have these warm days, so it is a bit concerning,” he said.
Margaret Orr, a junior meteorology and climatology major, agreed that the February heat wave is cause for worry, but also it cannot directly be attributed to climate change.
She explained that the difference in the terms “weather” and “climate” is an important factor in determining the severity of the issue.
“Weather is like the day-to-day changes, while climate is a long-term weather pattern,” Orr said.
Orr said for this reason they cannot use weather events like heat waves or large snowfalls to draw larger conclusions about climate, until a weather pattern is repeated frequently enough to become a trend.
By this standard, statistics point to a clear trend in rising Earth temperatures.
Brodie specified that 2016 was the hottest year on record, as were 2015 and 2014 before that.
He added that from a broader perspective, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record occurred after the year 2000.
“The trend has been ongoing for decades, and it’s only becoming more prominent as things continue,” Brodie said.
If the trend keeps going, Brodie said, Delaware likely would see more spring-like weather in the winter months as a symptom.
“For our region you end up with more extreme summers and you lose the intermediate seasons,” Brodie said. “You end up with less time in spring and fall.”
Though it may sound appealing to break out the T-shirts and shorts more often in February, there are environmental impacts when the seasons begin to fluctuate.
Brodie said events like premature warmth affect plants and animals the most. A return to cold weather after a warm spell catches off guard the species that have emerged in response to warmer temperatures.
He used the flowering trees on campus as examples of plants that react to warm spells only to suffer damage when the weather transitions back to cold.
Subsequently, when changing climate impacts plant life cycles, it also affects the animals that utilize the plants.
Brodie added that Delaware is also highly susceptible to the other issues of climate change like rise in sea level, being a coastal region at low elevation.
Hoeflich said it’s important that people are aware of what is happening with the weather, because it could change how we experience the seasons.
“If this trend continues we’re not going to have the normal winters that we’re used to seeing,” Hoeflich said.
He added that educating people is the most important factor in making progress in the climate change debate.
“There’s a lot of support in favor of how the climate is, in fact, changing, and human effects are linked to that climate change,” Hoeflich said.
Orr shared the hope that community members will notice the changes that are happening to the climate.
She writes a blog about the climate in an effort to educate others amid the political chaos surrounding climate change.
“It’s an interesting time to be in the field,” Orr said.
Brodie also said he ultimately hopes people will take note of the odd weather and realize its potential meaning in terms of the future of the planet.
“I hope that people are more aware that these thing are happening,” Brodie said. “You can pretend that they’re not, but that doesn’t stop them from happening.”