By Doug Nichols
Mark Twain may have said it first, “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” In Colorado, folks say, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes,” but variations of that phrase are spoken all over the country. Weather affects our lives every day (some days more than others!). As I write this late in February, we are experiencing an unseasonably warm and dry winter, although by the time you read this, we may have had major snowfall. If so, consider us fortunate, because this winter has been entirely too dry, and our yards, gardens, and trees undoubtedly have suffered. Maybe this milder, drier winter weather is because our climate is changing.
The difference between weather and climate is time. Weather is atmospheric conditions occurring over short periods of time (days or weeks), and climate is atmospheric conditions operating over much longer periods (decades or centuries). We all know that forecasting the weather with accuracy is difficult. This is because atmospheric conditions are incredibly complex.
So what about atmospheric scientists who claim our climate is changing, that our planet is undergoing global warming, and that global climate change will have drastic effects all over the world? Are those predictions correct? In contrast to rapidly changing daily weather conditions, long-term changes in climate can be reliably observed and trends documented. The polar ice caps definitely are melting and the sea level is measurably rising. The only real debate is whether these conditions are caused by human activity or by natural geological cycles.
The evidence is clear: burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil) is putting vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate unprecedented even on the scale of geological time. We may not be able to do anything about the weather, but as citizens of the world, we can make an effort to reduce negative effects on our climate by reducing our “carbon footprint” (the amount of carbon dioxide we produce through energy use in our homes and in personal transport). There is vastly more to be said about this, but this month the topic is weather, not climate.
Everyday aspects of weather are temperature and precipitation. Some of the more dramatic effects of weather can be seen in an interactive exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which will be on display through May 3. These dramatic effects include hurricanes and tornadoes and although hurricanes are not a problem here in Berthoud (other than increased rainfall from waning storm systems that occasionally drift up from the Gulf of Mexico), we are quite aware of the devastating effects of the recent tornado in Windsor.
The museum’s newest exhibit, “Nature Unleashed,” features these two weather-related disasters, as well as information on earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and floods. Six winners of the essay contest about weather recently sponsored by the Berthoud Recorder for our middle and high school students will visit “Nature Unleashed.” For more information on the exhibit, go to http://dmns.org/natureunleashed/.
Doug Nichols was a Scientist Emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey and a Research Associate with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He was a resident of Berthoud. We mourn Doug’s untimely passing in Jan. 2010.