Should we worry about the great winter weather?

Photo by Ralph Barrera

Photo by Ralph Barrera

What should Texans make of this freakishly warm winter that just ended – particularly those worried about global climate change?

The winter was the warmest on record in Central Texas. It also was unusually warm in many other parts of the country. A recent Washington Post blog entry gave an impassioned plea for people to not feel guilty about enjoying such weather in places where winter was mild.

Maybe the lesson, as the Post blog argued, is that climate change could be a mixed bag — a conclusions with which Texas climate experts agree.

By itself, the winter was not proof of global climate change. But the winter temperatures were in line with what climate scientists say Texas will probably experience over the coming decades, University of Texas climate scientist Kerry Cook said.

Cook, asked by the American-Statesman to put this winter into a climate-change context, said it will probably happen more often. Climate models show the average winter temperature in Texas rising by 2 degrees by 2050 (with summer rising by nearly 4 degrees). Temperatures will still vary from year to year, of course; some years will be unusually hot, some unusually cold, some unremarkable.

But a warmer climate is a more energetic climate, with more extremes: more extremely pleasant winters, more extremely hot summers, even more extremely hot days. (The best climate models show the number of 100-degree days in an average Central Texas year doubling by 2050, from 13 now to 26.)

Another thought to keep in mind as you enjoy spring-like weather that people in Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle would envy, were they not too busy trying to keep warm: Central Texas is probably in for other kinds of extreme weather. The average summer rainfall totals are expected to drop 10 percent to 15 percent between now and 2050. And slow soaking rainfall will probably become less common, according to the climate models, while deluges – the kind that tend to produce flooding – will probably become more common.

Even so, people should not think of this winter as a gift that Central Texans will soon have to pay for. A warm winter does not mean a hellish summer is particularly likely, as there is “very little correlation” between winter and summer temperatures, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon told the American-Statesman.

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang also sought to assuage misgivings about the warm winter in its blog post. It argued that “feeling sad about it, while well-intended, is not necessary,” adding that the occasional “warm winter days are fortunate aspects of our climate, and their increase is one of few positive effects of climate change.”

The Post’s post also noted a New York Times piece about warm weather helping peoples’ mental well-being, as well as highlighting a study in Nature that found that “virtually all Americans are now experiencing the much milder winters they prefer.”

Even Katharine Hayhoe, the Texas Tech University climate scientist who has warned Austin of more extreme weather to come, told The Atlantic recently that people should enjoy the upside of climate change because enjoying it “doesn’t make it any better or worse than it would be otherwise.”

Perhaps this is the time to double down on one of the popular climate-change metaphors. A warmer planet may be a mixed bag – but even a mixed bag could hold more bad things than good. So for now, enjoy the early arrival of the bluebonnets.