Drought, Weather Cycles, and the Historian’s View

Today’s Washington Post has a short, but juice-laden piece on this summer’s weather and its connection (or not) to “climate change” and long-term weather cycles. It’s definitely worth reading, if only because so many commentators have jumped to the easy conclusion that this summer’s weather is the result of global climate change. (*1) The WaPo piece puts that conclusion-jumping into perspective.

I mentioned my view on that in my previous post, but the historian in me (you know: the person who takes the Long View of the Big Picture) would like to add this:

Sure, this summer’s weather has consists of broken records: new high temperatures; new streak of days without rain, and so forth.

But it’s worth noting the obvious: records can be, and are, broken, right? Back in the 1930s, for example, people marveled at the abysmal stretch of heat/drought/whatever, as records were broken right and left, and they wondered about its causes.

So, too, back in, say, the 17th century: When people experienced “exceptional” weather — lack of rain; too much rain, etc. — they looked for causes. At that time, they typically blamed human sin and error for their misery: god was punishing them. In the 21st century, we simply have a different explanation for “unusual weather.” (Which, by the way, usually means the bad stuff. No one ever bitches when, as has been the case for the past three, four years, we have spectacular weather.)

Nor does it follow that new records/broken records are necessarily indicative of anything other than “Oh, hey, we’re having an unusually brutal summer of a sort not seen since the 1930s” (or whenever).

Is climate change a factor in this summer’s weather? Perhaps. Perhaps even probably. But we would do well to recognize that climate and weather operate in long-term cycles.

Indeed, at a time when everyone chatters about “nature” and the “environment,” surely one way to honor both is by respecting their complexity, in this case by recognizing that many of nature’s patterns are cyclical and that those cycles typically extend for periods that extend well beyond one persons lifetime. This year’s awful weather may be more than just this year’s awful weather or evidence of “climate change.” It could be part of a long-term cyclical shift.

Embracing a deeper understanding of nature is as important as the knee-jerk conclusion that new weather records equal “climate change.” Jump to a conclusion, and you may end up missing the bigger, more important story.


*1: Again: I’m not a climate-denier, or whatever term is being used these days. I’ve no doubt the scientists are on to something. But I’m also a long-time weather watcher with an enormous respect for nature and its forces, which are much bigger than me.

2 thoughts on “Drought, Weather Cycles, and the Historian’s View

  1. Hi Maureen,

    I have some “beef” with your statement “as has been the case for the past three, four years, we have spectacular weather”. The winter of 2010 was not particular good in the northeast, we got hammered with snow. Speculation has that it was “warmer” thus more moister in the air, thus more snow. But that’s speculation. The facts, according to NASA (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2011-temps.html), are that since 1880, the 9 of the 10 warmest years have all happened since 2000. 2011 was the 9th hotest, and 2010 was tied with 2005 as the hottest on our current records…so I’m not sure how you can, from historical perspective, say that the last 3 to 4 years have been a spectular weather, they’ve been hot and stormy. Now is that significant in a 10,000 year cycle and are we responsible, I don’t know, I’ll leave that to the climatologists to figure out.


  2. Hi, Sam: I’m sorry. I should have been WAY more specific about that “spectacular weather” comment: I was referring to the summers here in the midwest (so, doh!, yeah should have specified…) On the other hand, we had three lousy winters in a row: huge snowfalls, bitter cold, etc. But again, that’s cyclical stuff.

    ANd again, I’m no climate denier. But I stick by my point that it’s too easy to blame “climate change” for every case of new weather records. For all I know, the fact that nine of the ten warmest years since 1880 have unfolded since 2000 simply means that we’re in a new weather cycle.

    Anyway: Thanks SO MUCH for stopping by and taking time to read the post. I appreciate it. Here’s to, um, cooler weather — and maybe some rain????


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