Column: The Weather Is Just a Roll of the Dice

Chuck Wooster

Chuck Wooster

I was at the town dump during the rainy thaw in early January, and the talk was all about global warming. About how the winters weren’t reliable anymore, about how folks were giving away their skis or not registering their snowmachines, and about how the plow guys were falling behind on their payments.

Later that month, I was at the Hartford town hall for an evening meeting when the temperature was below zero, having only flirted with positive territory for a couple of hours over the previous days. The few words exchanged as people hustled from car to building were muffled variations of, “global warming, my foot!” and once inside the safety of the building, topics ranged from frozen pipes to dead car batteries to the availability of seasoned firewood.

“There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.” Rarely has Mark Twain’s observation seemed more apt than this current winter, and rarely have the people expressed so much admiration — and regret. Between the polar vortex, the extended cold snaps, the thaws, the rain and the occasional heat wave, it seems we’re just one 30-inch blizzard shy of the cycle.

What does all this mean? What does this crazy weather say about climate change?

Actually, it says very little. People have been cursing January mud puddles since the moment they first arrived in New England. And people have been complaining about frozen nostril hairs and numb thumbs for just as long. Despite our collective enthusiasm for the topic, linking today’s weather to tomorrow’s climate says more about human nature than it does about either the weather or the climate. Weather is something we can all feel first-hand, on a daily basis, and we intuitively want it to mean something. Climate, on the other hand, is something only known to the slide-rule geeks in the back room, the meteorologists in green eye shades who sit in front of computers and pour over statistics. Climate is not something we can experience directly.

Consider, by way of analogy, rolling a set of dice, which is as good a representation of the relationship between weather and climate as I’ve ever heard. Weather is a single roll of the dice while climate is all the dice that are rolled during the game. Weather is what’s happening now, while climate is the average of everything that’s already happened.

Let’s say you pick up the dice and roll a four and a three, and then someone asks you, are these normal dice or have these dice been loaded? Have they been subtly modified to favor higher numbers rather than lower ones? That’s the question we face with climate change: Are we experiencing a normal climate right now or are we experiencing something that’s being subtly skewed in favor of higher numbers?

If you rolled a four and a three, you’d probably claim you had no idea if they were loaded. If you rolled double sixes, though, and especially if you rolled them twice in a row, wouldn’t you have a hunch that something was up? Most likely. You’d be guilty of nothing other than the human desire to seek patterns that help make sense of the world.

On the flip side, you’d be hard-pressed to believe the dice were loaded if you rolled successive snake eyes.

But in each of these cases, the fact is that you can’t know if the dice are loaded. Two or three rolls of the dice are not enough to establish a pattern. Even an entire night at the craps table, win or lose, wouldn’t be enough to tell if a pair of dice have been modified by a casino. Loading the dice is a subtle thing, and you need to know the results of many thousands of rolls before you can assess what’s going on. So while we’ve certainly had some crazy weather this winter, none of it tell us anything about the state of the climate.

But for the folks in the back room, be they security guards at the casino or meteorologists in green eye shades, there’s no question what’s going on. The climate is changing. Whether you prefer the meteorologists at the National Weather Service or NASA, climate scientists from the U.S.A. or overseas, the statistical evidence is overwhelming. The climate has been steadily warming over the past century. Twelve of the warmest years since records began being kept in the 1880s have come in the past 13 years.

How is this playing out in the Upper Valley? Generally speaking, New England weather is changing in two ways: our winters are becoming warmer, especially at night, and our rainfall is increasing, especially in major storms. This won’t mean an immediate end to the full range of weather that we’re famous for. Over time, snake eyes will become something of a rarity while box cars will turn up more often; 30-below at night will be uncommon while summer gully washers will become normal. But we’ll still have some of each of these, and no one event will ever prove anything.

We’ve experienced the new normal on our farm in White River Junction in the past few years. Thanks to the warmer winter nights, we’ve had more late blight (a disease of tomatoes and peppers that doesn’t overwinter here but now arrives many weeks earlier in the summer than it used to) and spotted wing drosophila (an insect that feeds on blueberries and raspberries.) As for rainfall, we were seeding lettuce plants last June in our greenhouse when suddenly water started pouring in through the door, quickly rising to midway up our boots. It turned out that we picked up more rainfall in that one downpour than we had during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” is another aphorism attributed to Mark Twain, though one that’s become less funny now that we’re aware that we should be doing something about it. Nevertheless, we need to keep on talking. The crazy weather in New England is endlessly entertaining, and what with religion and politics off limits for polite conversation, weather is the best social lubricant we’ve got. The dice might be loaded, but rolling double sixes is still a thrill. Sometimes a sunny day is just a sunny day.

Chuck Wooster, chairman of the Hartford Selectboard, is a farmer and writer who lives in White River Junction.