Talking about the weather

It always changes: Perceptions, predictions of climate can vary as much as extremes of weather.

February 06, 1999

A WARM winter or a cold one? That's a matter of often-flawed human judgment and memory. While winter in these parts was somewhat late in arriving, it hit with a vengeance of disruptive ice and sleet. Then the thermometer shot up to springtime levels. Then it dropped and rose again.

But the average temperature for December-January in Central Maryland was 10 degrees colder than in the same period a year ago, according to the latest Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. bill.

The concept of global warming, fed by rising human-caused emissions of "greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide, is the latest explanation of weather change.

There's convincing evidence that world temperatures are increasing. An international effort aims to reduce levels of harmful gases that trap the heat released from the earth's surface in the atmosphere. Last year was the hottest on record for the world, according to NASA scientists. Increased flooding and drought are expected as a result of higher surface temperatures. But temperatures in the United States did not exceed records of earlier decades. And U.S. Geological Survey scientists recently reported finding no increased flooding of the nation's natural streams over the past 50 years.

Heavy one-day rainfalls are more common, but not enough to cause more marked flooding. Much of the fault for severe natural disasters lies with more construction in flood plains and communities in naturally arid places.

People used to accept the unpredictability of weather. But today's generation is fixated on instant television and radio forecasts and a heavy diet of weather stories.

"It's the nature of climate to be variable," philosopher Dale Jamieson reminds us. "People tend to confuse variability with change."

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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