Anyone who has lived in the same place for a number of years is likely to casually – almost instinctively – compare their current weather to what they think of as usual, typical, or normal weather: “This winter has been much snowier than usual.” And we have all heard weather forecasters say things like “Temperatures over the next few days will be 5-8 degrees warmer than normal.” 

What many of us don’t know is that for weather specialists, “normal” is a technical term: normal weather conditions, especially details of temperatures and precipitation, are those of the most recently concluded three-(whole)-decade period. In 2019, “normal” was 1981-2010; now, in 2021, it is 1991-2020. 

This definition has long been useful and in some ways still is. But where it leads us now is also both illuminating (the climate of the US has changed dramatically, and with increasing speed) and problematic: What will it matter if we forget what our climates used to be like before our fossil fuels changed them? What if we unconsciously “normalize” our planet’s thoroughly disrupted and disruptive new conditions?

These pieces offer excellent explanations of all of this, each one highlighting a somewhat different set of graphics and examples:

  • New York Times (Henry Fountain and Jason Kao), with a mesmerizing – and startling – animated version of the overlapping 30-year  temperature maps of the US.
  • Washington Post (Bob Henson and Jason Samenow), with lots of information about what the new normals tell us and how they are and are not useful.
  • CBS News (Jeff Berardelli), with both a good video and a good text from a meteorologist and climate specialist for the network (caveat re heat and dryness in the West: that feedback loop is “positive,” though its effects are negative).
  • Inside Climate News (Bob Berwyn and Matt deGrood), with characteristically solid information and a focus on the problem of sliding baselines that this official use of the word “normal” obscures.
  • The Conversation (Russ Schumacher and Becky Bolinger), with a little more technical information and different examples from Colorado’s State Climatologist and Assistant State Climatologist.

This series is curated and written by retired Colorado State University English professor and close climate change watcher SueEllen Campbell of Colorado. To flag works you think warrant attention, send an e-mail to her any time. Let us hear from you.

SueEllen Campbell

SueEllen Campbell created and for over a decade curated the website "100 Views of Climate Change," a multidisciplinary collection of pieces accessible to interested non-specialists. She is especially interested...