It might feel good, but February’s intense heat is a very bad sign

The United States hits record high temps, as a climate change denier takes the reins at the EPA.

CREDIT: Pixabay
CREDIT: Pixabay

Meteorologists expect to see dozens of heat records broken this week, as an extended stretch of uncommonly warm weather continues across much of the United States.

Also this week, Scott Pruitt took the helm at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt, who has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, has described climate science as a “religious belief” and said he expects to scrap the Clean Power Plan, an EPA initiative to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Scientists have found that carbon pollution is warming the planet, producing more severe weather, including more extreme heat. February’s spate of record-high temperatures offers the most recent example of how this process plays out.

In Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, temperatures hit a record 99º F earlier this month, more than 40º above the average February high. Texas, Kansas, and Colorado also recorded all-time highs. Over the long weekend, Chicago endured four consecutive days of record heat, which coincided with record-setting temperatures in Madison, Milwaukee, and other Midwestern cities.

In parts of the country, temperatures were as much as 10º F above normal for the first three weeks of February. CREDIT: NOAA/NWS
In parts of the country, temperatures were as much as 10º F above normal for the first three weeks of February. CREDIT: NOAA/NWS

This first three weeks of February have been a meteorological anomaly. But the weather seen this month is quickly becoming the new normal in the United States. Carbon pollution is trapping heat, driving up temperatures around the country. That means fewer cold days and more warm days.

Global warming is shifting the entire distribution of temperatures, making extreme cold less likely and extreme heat more likely. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency
Global warming is shifting the entire distribution of temperatures, making extreme cold less likely and extreme heat more likely. CREDIT: Environmental Protection Agency

Record hot days — those at the far end of the temperature distribution—bear the strongest human fingerprint. This, in other words, is what climate change looks like.

As the planet warms, we will endure more extreme heat and less extreme cold. February has delivered record temperatures to countries as far afield as Iceland and Australia. So far this month, the United States has seen 2,805 record highs and just 27 record lows.

Heat-trapping carbon pollution is warming the planet, producing shorter winters and more extreme heat. CREDIT: Climate Signals
Heat-trapping carbon pollution is warming the planet, producing shorter winters and more extreme heat. CREDIT: Climate Signals

This change in weather patterns does not come without a cost.

For those living in frigid Midwestern states, a balmy day in February is a welcome respite from the typical winter chill. But the early thaw — what scientists call “season creep” — can have disastrous consequences for ecosystems.

Flowers are already beginning to emerge in Chicago, which has gone a record 67 days without an inch of snow. Early blossoms may wilt before they can be pollinated. Farmers in the region may see their crops bud after an early thaw only to perish in a late-season frost.

Plants are regrowing leaves days or weeks earlier than they typically do. CREDIT: National Phenology Network
Plants are regrowing leaves days or weeks earlier than they typically do. CREDIT: National Phenology Network

Because climate change poses an immediate threat to public health, agriculture and wildlife, states and cities aren’t waiting for Pruitt’s EPA to take action. Massachusetts legislators are now considering a bill that would require the state to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2035. California has pledged to transition to 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2045.

“Mr. Pruitt is a clear and present danger to our economic prosperity and the health of our children,” California Senate leader Kevin de Léon (D) said in a statement. “California will not follow Trump’s destructive path. We’ve proven that you can protect the environment and grow jobs.”

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.