Climate vs. Weather … the difference matters.

SINCE PEOPLE on teevee STOLE MY local THUNDER …. here’s my take:

After a winter ice storm ravaged Southwest Oklahoma this month, it left some – who already may have been skeptical – wondering whether the concept of global warming – or climate change – could even be real.  Scientists who are studying the phenomenon, however, are not in disagreement … they say it’s a reality.

While disputes seem to arise over whether it is a manmade occurrence, the issue of whether it is happening is not hotly contested by climate research scientists.
Since the weather has been cold, some may question how there possibly could be global ‘warming,’ but Cameron University Professor of Physical Sciences Kurtis Koll, Ph.D. says that may be because there is a misunderstanding about what weather is and what climate is.  “Weather is a short term meteorological event, perhaps a day-to-day event, in a local area,” he said.  “As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, hang around five minutes.”  Koll says weather – itself – is inherently changeable.  “It can change suddenly.  It’s not long term.  Even with microclimates in a given place, that microclimate is still a part of the weather,” he said.

For example, Koll says there’s something called a “heat dome.”  Cities can create their own heat dome through the asphalt after the sun has warmed it and heat has been captured.  “But, still … that’s part of weather.”  Climate, says Koll, is different.  “Any changes are more subtle and long term,” he said.  “Oklahoma, for example, may have its own particular climate regionally – it may be drier in the panhandle and moister in th eastern part of the state.  But, that’s not a global occurrence, necessarily.”

Global warming means just that … a “global” warming.  Scientists measuring this warming, Koll says, are coming to a consensus about just how much.  While there is not a current official global standard for measuring this process, University of Oklahoma NOAA Cooperative Instructor for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) and George Lynn Cross Research Professor Peter Lamb, Ph.D. says they are working on just that.  “There is no real (standard) equation to measure climate,” he said.  But, he says the closest thing to it may be the measuring of pollutant levels in the atmosphere.  He says equipment used to keep track of climate varies in age, so they’re working to adjust to that reality.  “We’re working on a standard math procedure to calculate it (that everyone can agree on),” he said.

Koll addresses the confusion about global warming by comparing it to our recent ice storm.  “When people started to hear that there may be an issue with the water, people panicked,” he said.  “Others, still, thought the city was crying wolf and that it wasn’t a reality.”  Just last week, there was, in fact, an issue with the water plant, but what Mayor John Purcell asked was that the city, and its surrounding areas, pull together for a short time in an effort to conserve water until the issue was resolved.  It certainly was no prank, but still managed to cause a bit of confusion.  “The prospect of no water panicked citizens,” said Koll.  “With education, some will take advantage, and others won’t.”  He says the current effort to reduce the effect of carbon emissions is akin to that.  “Conservation is an effort to do just that … ‘conserve.”

Climate change is more subtle than an abrupt shift in weather, Koll says.  “What is the source of greenhouse gas? Is it industrial? Is it natural? Each side will point fingers at each other, but change is inevitable,” he said.  “Just like human beings, the earth changes, and I personally believe it’s good stewardship to do our best to conserve our resources,” he said, “no matter the cause of climate change.”

“We’re currently in an interglacial period, between ice ages,” Koll said.  “We’re going through a natural warming period as it is.  Climate models may show a one or two degree climate change which may, in turn, cause changes to the weather.  There was an average temperature change between 1995-2005 where temperatures seemed to grow at a faster rate.  And, an increase in ocean temperatures also could contribute to warming temperatures,” said Koll.  “In a desire to use a more general term, the ‘global’ part (of global warming) – by most people – is misunderstood,” said Lamb.

Lamb says the so-called “Climategate” controversy in which a university researcher’s email exchanges with colleagues this year was hacked and printed in many major news outlets was unfortunate and misunderstood.  Pennsylvania State University Department of Meteorology Researcher Michael Mann, Ph.D. was at the center of the email “storm.”  Just this month he was exonerated on all charges but one spelled out by reporter John M. Broder in a New York Times article: “Whether his behavior undermined public faith in the science of climate change.”
The university itself conducted a panel study fo his research and determined he was keeping within the ethical scientific standards.  In the inquiry report, the university reported: “From among these 377 emails, the inquiry committee focused on 47 emails that were deemed relevant.”

Confusion during “Climategate” seemed to arise when climate researchers were discussing mathematical data.  “They were not falsifying data; they were trying to construct an understandable graph for those who were not experts in the field,” the panel wrote.  “The so-called ‘trick’ was nothing more than a statistical method to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion by a technique that has been reviewed by a broad array of peers in the field,” they concluded.  The report goes on to give examples in quantum mechanics where the term “trick” is used.  “Science often involves different groups who have very different points of view, arguing for the intellectual dominance of their viewpoint.”  While one side sees the emails as sinister, “The other side sees these as nothing more than private discussions of scientists engaged in a hotly debated topic of enormous social impact,” the report said.

But, what about the so-called “Big Freeze” that others are discussing?  Well, in a Dec. 2009 interview with Charles Q. Choi of LiveScience, isotope biogeochemist William Patterson at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, said: “This kind of scenario would not discount evidence pointing toward global warming – after all, it leans on the Greenland ice sheet melting.  We could say that global warming could lead to dramatic cooling … This should serve as further warning rather than a pass,” he told LiveScience.

“As excess amounts of snow and ice melt, it spreads a lens of cold, fresh water on top of warm salt water.  The fresh water doesn’t sink, and since warming could produce excess melting, as a part of the great conveyor belt (part of ocean circulation) it could cause cooling in the North Atlantic … it’s ironic,” said Lamb.

So, what about greenhouse gases? Koll says greenhouse gases can be both natural and manmade, but we shouldn’t discount either.  “Around the time ‘Earth Day’ was created, there was a great focus on water.  It’s easy to see water pollution,” said Koll.  “But, it’s something that happens over many years, not all at once.”  Because of studies of water pollution, and advancements in science, the world now has a global standard for measuring water contaminants and bacteria in water.

But, why is it cold outside if there’s global warming?  “Because, that’s ‘weather.’ Because it’s winter … it’s supposed to be cold,” said Koll.  “But, just as you maintain your home, or your car, we – as human beings – have been challenged in literature, and history, and politics to be good stewards, or to save money, or to improve ourselves.  As things change … we have to adapt.”



  1. Billie… I think we all need to look at the long view.

  2. They should have called it “climate change” from the beginning, not “global warming.” I don’t know if that was to make it easier for the average person to understand it or what but all it’s done is lead the ignorant to misunderstand what it is.


    Whoever it was that broke into that server, I hope he makes lots of large boyfriends in prison.

  3. […] global warming/climate change naysayers consistently cite warnings of a “big freeze” that supposedly did not come true as their reason for not “believing in” proven […]

  4. […] AWESOME Summary of all you need to know about “SNOWtorius B.I.G.” — kinda sums up my interviews, but in a cooler way:  “I am a meteorologist.  I don’t do research in climate change. The […]

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