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Unless you've been under a rock for the last week, you've been inundated with "coverage" of the recent cold temperatures affecting the eastern United States. Allow me to sum up: "Boy is it cold out there!"

The frustrating part of how these weather events have been portrayed in the mainstream media is the lack of explanation of the underlying causes. Maybe that's because the evening news is just not the appropriate format for explaining the science of extreme weather events. Network coverage tends to be more "Wow! look at this!" Even the local news emphasized that it has been 18 years since it was below zero (Fahrenheit) in Cleveland, suggesting (rather disingenuously, in my opinion) that such cold temperatures are anomalies; and always have been.

So I was pleased to find an elegant and powerful frame on one of my favorite webcomics, XKCD.

This comic from XKCD (by way of Treehugger) puts the recent mediagasm about the polar vortex into its proper context.

number of days below zero F dropped in recent years
XKCD "Cold" Used under Creative Commons 2.5 license
And it got me thinking: what are the comparable dates for my home town, Cleveland? So I did a little digging, and found the National Climate Data Center's searchable database. A few screens later, I had a "shopping cart" with an "order" for daily summary information for Cleveland from 1970-present. Specifically, daily minimum air temperatures. A little number crunching, and a few minutes later out pops this lovely Excel chart, showing the number of days below 0ºF, just like in the webcomic:
Number of days below 0ºF in Cleveland, by year
The pattern in Cleveland isn't as stark as it is in St. Louis. It still dips below 0º here on a handful of days every year. But it's been twenty years since we've had temps below zero more than five times a year.

If I had more time, I'd run this down for more cities. Unfortunately there are a lot of variations on "Brrr! it's cold here in (fill in the blank)," and only one of me.  So let's crowdsource this. The data is there, and free, for anyone to access on the a href=''>NCDC website. Pick out your city, or one you think might be interesting. Maybe Washington DC (yes, I'm looking at you, Inhofe) or the hometown of some other climate change deniers. Maybe I'll give a prize for the city with the longest span since its last below-zero day. This could be fun!

The crowdsourcing of Project Climate Chaos: It's Cold! has another advantage. You can use these anecdotes to people you know, who are familiar with the weather where you (and they) live, and illustrate how climate change has already affected them. And do it without being confrontational.

OK, the TWO advantages of this approach are localizing climate change, its non-confrontational nature, and that it's simple enough for even science-challenged Americans to comprehend. Right. The THREE advantages... oh, let me come in again.

This comic from XKCD...

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Comment Preferences

  •  Amongst the reasons for liking this frame... (22+ / 0-)
    AMONGST our weapons...

    It's funny - I was just thinking yesterday about simple, easy to understand ways I could demonstrate climate change, like how much earlier flowers seem to be blooming in the spring, or how much earlier the birds come back. And then this showed up in my inbox.

    Reforms come from below. No man with four aces howls for a new deal.
    Keystone XL will raise gas prices!

    by Turbonerd on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 11:46:09 AM PST

  •  I grew up in the late 60's (12+ / 0-)

    early 70's in upstate NY - near Saratoga.  I can remember the pond across the street freezing over in December and all the kids skating on it well into February with just a few thaws in between.  Basically it has to be below freezing for several days in a row for it to be frozen enough to skate on - and then has to remain that way to continue skating.  We would head over right after school and stay out until after dark.  The pond wasn't even ours - it was the old farmer across the street's pond - but he let all the kids skate on it which is not something that would happen today.  Sometimes there would be 20 or 30 kids skating on that little pond at one time.

  •  You can do a lot with local data (6+ / 0-)

    One of the predictions of climate models is that rainfall will be more sporadic -- longer dry periods punctuated by heavier downpours.  Mathematically speaking, the prediction is that the variance of precipitation will increase.  

    I've run the numbers with data from the local official airport weather station, and you'll never believe that I found out -- the variance in monthly precipitation DID increase.  By quite a lot.

    This would be a good math/science exercise for junior high and high school students.  If they are not too busy with their creation science.

  •  How did you get the "days below 0" graph? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sylv, Turbonerd, belinda ridgewood

    I.e., what option did you select for "Select Weather Observation Type/Dataset" ?

    •  Thank you, good to know I'm not the only one (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Turbonerd, belinda ridgewood, MKSinSA

      I tried but I couldn't figure it out.

    •  doh! I meant to spell that out more clearly (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Sylv, belinda ridgewood, Oh Mary Oh

      from the NCDC search tool (, select "Daily Summaries" from the "Weather Type/Observation" dropdown, then set date range (Jan. 1 1970 - current), and search for "cities" (by city name/state).

      On the following selection screen (a map), click on the city name to "Add" to cart. An icon will popup in the upper right corner of the map, as  well as a banner across the entire bottom. Click either one, and then the "View all items" button.

      On the next screen, confirm the date range. Select "Custom GHCN-Daily CSV" radio button for the output format. Review your "order" at the bottom and click continue.

      On the next screen, I checked all the boxes under "Station Detail & Data Flag Options," although that probably wasn't necessary. I didn't need the latitude and longitude of the observation station, for instance. Under "Select data types for custom output" drill down to "Air Temperature" and then "Minimum temperature (tenths of degrees C) (TMIN)."

      I imported the whole mess into Excel. Then I converted the temps from C to F. (Because America!) Then stripped out the year from the date field, flagged each line with a value of less than 0, and did a count of those days. (I did say there was some number crunching involved.)

      Convert that table into a chart, copy the chart into a picture viewer (there's probably an easier way, but I don't remember it), upload to the image library, and voila!

      Reforms come from below. No man with four aces howls for a new deal.
      Keystone XL will raise gas prices!

      by Turbonerd on Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 12:38:40 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I grew up about 25 miles south of Rolla Mo. (4+ / 0-)

    for 35 some-odd years then moved to Springfield in '90 but it's the same weather systems for the most part then and now and back then everyone would say around Nov. "well sure it's winter but now we don't have to worry about Tornadoes till Spring" and most of the winters after the first snow you didn't see the ground till late Feb. there was none of this cold-snow-warm-up-melt-snow-snow-warm-up-melt-snow-go-outside-in-short-sleeved-shirt-thunderstorm-snow pattern back then it Snowed and almost always a heavy wet snow of 10-20 inches and then "the bottom would fall out the bucket"and it got into the single and double digits below Zero temps for nighttime  and in the bright sunny days it was 5 below to if lucky 5 above Zero for days and weeks on end and everyone was happy when the temps got back to 20-30 "F" and well to make it short by those winters from the '60s and '70s and even '80s this has been a mild Winter to me.

  •  It used to be colder (3+ / 0-)

    down here in Georgia from time to time,  but this many days without breaking freezing in January, this many lows in the teens or single digits in January, that is unusual.   This stuff is supposed to show up once or twice a winter, stay two to three days, and then not darken our doors again for a year.  I remember absolute colder lows from time to time, and one winter with about as much intense cold and even more snow, but only the one.    

  •  The ski areas know this (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sylv, Turbonerd, Calamity Jean, Oh Mary Oh

    because they have to pay attention to when it is cold enough to make snow, and how much melting will there be.

    There are ski areas in trouble much further north than you would think. A whole industry, and all the collateral restaurants, hotels, etc. that go with it, could disappear from the Northeast.

  •  I grew up in the same county I live in, and am 41. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Throw The Bums Out

    When I was growing up, the weather got "fall-like" the second to third week of September, and got wintery with the first snowfall, which generally commenced anywhere from the first to the third week of November. (Once or twice it showed up for Halloween, much to my childhood chagrin, as my costume was not cut to be worn over my coat.)  The opening snowfall totals were usually in the range of three to five inches. About every three days thereafter, it would snow another one to two inches, and about once every three to four weeks we'd get another 4-6 inches, with at least one storm showing up once a season that dumped a foot of snow overnight. Usually that got schools cancelled, as we were a rural school system and the county roads got unnavigable. We also had a few delays due to the cold, which I appreciated as I waited for the bus at the end of our long, long driveway.

    This pattern went on with uninterrupted temperatures in the teens with occasional flirtations up into the twenties or down below zero right through January and February, and often the season finished with a bang by warming up to the mid thirties, waiting a week, and then dumping a final foot of snow. And then we went ahead with spring.

    Summers were also not as extreme. My parents didn't have air conditioning, but it only got up into the high eighties; they had built the house with good airflow, and with a swimming pool we could cool off as needed. It wasn't until I was in my late teens that we started seeing high nineties in the summer. And they got central air.

    When you come to find how essential the comfort of a well-kept home is to the bodily strength and good conditions, to a sound mind and spirit, and useful days, you will reverence the good housekeeper as I do above artist or poet, beauty or genius.

    by Alexandra Lynch on Sat Feb 01, 2014 at 10:03:13 AM PST

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