Coming to understand unsettled spring weather

Back in the frigid depths of March, we visited my sister’s family in Calgary. And as we were about to leave, my brother-in-law took a look out of the window. Knowing my environmentalist sympathies, he couldn’t resist a jab: “Well, it looks like Al Gore is going to have to give us our money back.”

“… the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time.”

— Wikipedia definition

of cognitive dissonance

Back in the frigid depths of March, we visited my sister’s family in Calgary. And as we were about to leave, my brother-in-law took a look out of the window. Knowing my environmentalist sympathies, he couldn’t resist a jab: “Well, it looks like Al Gore is going to have to give us our money back.”

Trying to be nonchalant about it, I simply stated, “Nope. It’s all explained in the latest issue of The Economist.” [March 8th]

And that’s when I could see the cognitive dissonance etching itself into his brow. For he is one of the movers and shakers in society, and so he knows that The Economist can’t be easily dismissed. It is the bedrock of knowledge for the elite. Back when I was going to university, it was widely regarded by my various professors as being one of the most objective sources of news. And today, my boss’s boss’s boss has a subscription, the issues of which he thoughtfully leaves in our staff lunchroom for our reading pleasure.

And how exactly did it explain the blanket of snow over Calgary, which, during a normal March, usually just displays dead grass from the previous fall? Well, it didn’t get into regional details, but as for the slowdown in warming seen over the last 15 years or so, it cited three reasons: fewer El Ninos, the current solar cycle (which isn’t as strong as the previous one), and lots and lots of sulphate aerosols being belched into the atmosphere by substandard Chinese factories.

The aerosols tend to reflect solar energy back into space, but as The Economist noted, this trend should ease in future years, due to new pollution control measures, which China passed into law last year.

As for El Nino, the last time we had one was in 2010, which was the hottest year on record, and which also saw the mercury hit 53.5C in Pakistan. El Ninos belch up accumulated ocean heat, and since the oceans absorb 93 per cent of the extra heat from global warming, and since that heat energy is equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima bombs per day, the next El Nino could be a sweltering one. And Peru’s official El Nino Commission figures that 2014-2015 will be the years that the warmth comes back (Peru’s anchovy fishery sees the initial effects, so they have a vested interest in early detection).

As for the solar cycle and all of the talk of Maunder Minimums (which my brother-in-law naturally brought up), I would advise anyone who is puzzled to simply look up “solar cycle” on Wikipedia. The graphs there show that we obviously rose out of the low solar event in 2009 (when the anti-Gore crowd thought that we were about to enter the late 17th century, with the River Thames freezing over and farmers struggling to grow crops).

But all that talk is about the Earth as a whole. What about the Prairie provinces this winter? Didn’t we have our own little Maunder Minimum in the past few months?

Only a week or two after the visit to my sister’s place, The Weather Network came out with an interesting news item. It was titled Marching into spring? Cooler than seasonal temperatures persist into April (still easily Googled).

It had several maps of North America with temperature anomalies shown on them. The areas that were colder than normal over the past winter showed up as green, whereas the warmer areas showed up as red. And in general, North America looked like it had a big green bulls-eye painted on it, stretching from Red Deer to Winnipeg to the Great Lakes. But the green bulls-eye was surrounded by a sea of red warmth. No, make that an ocean of red warmth. Or three of them: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic.

And some of the land was also red: the U.S. southwest (where California had the worst drought since records began being kept), and Alaska and Greenland.

So Alaska and Greenland and the Arctic Ocean were much warmer at the same time we were much colder. Think there might be a link there? Only if you had your listening ears on for the last few months and you heard the constant chatter about the “polar vortex.”

So if you’re wondering why we’ve been freezing while the polar bears have been wilting in the heat — and if you think you can handle a bit of cognitive dissonance — you might want to check out those colourful maps on The Weather Network.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to Visit the Energy and Ecology website at

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