It’s election day in Illinois, and the hottest topic in the Land of Lincoln will — I can forecast with complete confidence — be totally ignored by the GOP challengers.
That would be … the weather. Today may mark the seventh straight day of 80 degree temperatures at O’Hare, something that’s never happened before in March. Or in April, for that matter. “It is extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year-long periods of records to break records day after day after day,” the local office of the National Weather Service said in a statement Sunday morning, following a Saint Patrick’s Day that shattered 141 years of records.
And the Windy City is not alone. In International Falls, Minn., which threatened suit when a Colorado city tried to steal its “Nation’s Icebox” moniker, the mercury went to 77 degrees on Saturday — which was 42 degrees above average, and 22 degrees above the old record. It’s possible, according to weather historian Christopher Burt, that no station with a century of weather data has ever broken a mark by that much.
Here’s how Jeff Masters, founder of the website WeatherUnderground and probably the internet’s most widely read meteorologist, put it from his Michigan base: “As I stepped out of my front door into the pre-dawn darkness from my home I braced myself for the cold shock of a mid-March morning. It didn’t come. A warm, murky atmosphere, with temperatures in the upper fifties — 30 degrees above normal –greeted me instead. Continuous flashes of heat lightning lit up the horizon, as the atmosphere crackled with the energy of distant thunderstorms. I looked up at the hazy stars above me, flashing in and out of sight as lightning lit up the sky, and thought, this is not the atmosphere I grew up with.”
Indeed — later in the day an F-3 tornado wrecked a swath of homes and businesses just west of Ann Arbor, the earliest such storm Michigan has ever seen. “Never before has such an extended period of extreme and record-breaking warm temperatures affected such a large portion of the U.S. in March, going back to the beginning of record keeping in the late 1800s,” Masters wrote.
For 25 years climatologists have been telling us to expect exactly this kind of weather — such extremes become ever more likely as we warm the planet. It’s not just heat; it’s also drought and flood. Last year, the U.S. suffered through more multi-billion-dollar weather disasters than any other year in history. And it’s not just the U.S. — in 2010, the world’s largest insurance company said there was no way to explain the rapid planetary spike in extreme weather except for global warming.
But here’s the weird part: In our political life, all the storms are about contraception and gas prices. In 1988, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush promised to meet “the greenhouse effect with the White House effect,” and it was considered normal and proper, even though climate science was still in its infancy. Now, even though the science is long since settled, the GOP contenders vie to produce the most clownish possible response. Rick Santorum probably takes the prize — asked about global warming the other day in Mississippi, where he was campaigning with a piece of shale rock to underscore his commitment to endless drilling, his response was: “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is.”
Mitt Romney has been only slightly less ludicrous. His take: “Scientists will figure out 10, 20, 50 years from now” if humans are a significant cause of global warming. In fact, 50 years from now, computer models predict, this kind of March will be nothing abnormal — and summer will be, if not exactly hell, then a remarkably similar temperature.
President Obama? He’s willing to grant that climate change is real, even if he rarely mentions it in public. (The 17-minute Barack Obama: The Movie devotes exactly zero seconds to climate change, which is pretty much precisely the emphasis its received in his first term.) This week he’s off across the country touting his “all-of-the-above” energy policy, posing with drilling rigs.
But at least he noticed what was going on in his hometown. Speaking at a fundraiser at Tyler Perry’s Atlanta home (while Georgia was breaking most of its own early season temperature records), the president said, “It gets you a little nervous about what is happening to global temperatures. When it is 75 degrees in Chicago in the beginning of March, you start thinking.”
In case you were worried imminent action was at hand, however, he quickly added: “On the other hand, I really have enjoyed the nice weather.”