The Morning Meeting with Al Tompkins is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas worth considering and other timely context for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.
It is tempting to blame climate change for any anomaly in the weather. Some of the blame is justified – like long droughts and extraordinary rainstorms – but winter storms do not fit neatly in the climate change narrative. The researchers at Climate Central say that winter temperatures in the United States have increased by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years and that northern areas of the U.S. have warmed the fastest.
What does that mean in regard to extreme winter weather? There is a lot of debate about this but, as The New York Times explained:
Some scientists say that rapid warming of the Arctic — it has warmed nearly four times faster than other regions — is responsible. As the Arctic warms, they say, the temperature difference between the pole and the tropics lessens. That leads to weakening of the high-altitude winds called the polar jet stream. which becomes more sinuous, or wavier, and allows the polar vortex to spread southward.
Climate Central analyzed temperature data from 238 U.S. locations to see how much winters have warmed since 1970. The group reports that winter is the fastest warming season for 75% of 238 U.S. locations.
• About 97% (232) of locations had an increase in average winter temperatures since 1970.
• The average winter warming across the 238 locations from 1970 to 2022 was 3.3°F.
• Average winter temperatures warmed by 2°F or more in about 87% (207) of locations.
• Winter has warmed the most in northern locations across the Great Lakes and Northeast.
• The top-five warming winters since 1970 were experienced by Burlington, Vt. (7.1°F), Milwaukee, Wis. (6.1°F), Chattanooga, Tenn. (6.1°F), Concord, N.H. (6.0°F), and Green Bay, Wis. (5.7°F).
• From 1970 to 2021, 97% of 244 U.S. locations analyzed have experienced shrinking winter cold snaps.
• Cold snaps shrank by 6 days on average across all 244 stations since 1970.
Climate Central says warmer winters produce many changes including:
• Water supplies: Warmer winters can lead to declining mountain snowpack — a critical source of spring meltwater that refills reservoirs, irrigates crops, and helps meet peak water demand during summer.
• Energy use in homes: Warming winters have contributed to decreasing trends in heating degree days and residential natural gas use since 1974. But winter energy savings may be offset by increased cooling demand and a near-doubling of summer residential electricity use since 1973.
• Fruit yields: Many high-value fruit crops require a minimum number of winter chill hours. Warmer, shorter winters mean shorter chill periods, which could lead to lower fruit yields.
• Growing season length: Warmer, shorter winters mean the earlier arrival of spring and later onset of fall frost. Resulting longer growing seasons can benefit certain crops, but can also boost the growth of weeds and pests, increase overall irrigation demands, and shift the range of cultivated and wild plant and animal species.
• Snow and ice: Warming winters can affect the timing, location, and amount of snowfall and the coverage and duration of lake ice—with a range of impacts for people, ecosystems, and water supplies in different regions of the U.S.
• Winter recreation: The multi-billion dollar winter recreation industry, which includes skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling, could take an economic hit because of rising temperatures and reduced snow and ice accumulation.
Warm air holds more moisture than cold air so, generally, we would expect more winter precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow as the climate warms.
When it is cold enough for snow rather than rain, however — as it was in many places during the recent storm — more snow can fall. That’s because air can hold more moisture when it’s warmer. It’s the cold-weather version of why rainfall is becoming more extreme in many parts of the world.
I see these headlines all over the country; not related to the cold wave that sent electric meters spinning like tops:
- CT electricity prices are set to spike January 1 – CT Insider
- Electric bills in Green Bay, Wausau, Oshkosh will go up – Green Bay Press-Gazette
- Chills and bills: What to expect for heating costs from JEA this winter – The Florida Times-Union
- Expect rise in electric bills after Austin City Council OKs another set of rate hikes – Austin American Statesman
- Soaring utility bills send huge waves of people scrambling for help keeping heat and lights on in Colorado – The Colorado Sun
That story from Colorado explains part of the reason behind higher power bills, besides just more energy use during the coldest months, Utility companies partly because the cost of natural gas, which many use to produce electricity has risen, a story that many of you will find in your own locality:
A main driver in the soaring bills has been the rise in the price of natural gas — a cost that gets passed directly on to consumers.
This year the spot price for natural gas doubled to as much as $8.81 for a million British thermal units before dropping to $5.45 a million BTUs in November, which still left it 25% higher than the start of the year.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has approved three rate increases this year to cover rising gas prices, the last one in September, just before the heating season began.
In June, the PUC also approved a temporary gas rate increase to cover $500 million in fuel costs during 2021’s Winter Storm Uri, which briefly spurred prices to as high as $190 a million BTUs.
On top of that, in October the PUC granted Xcel Energy a $64.2 million increase in the base natural gas rates, and last April, the utility commission also approved a $182 million hike in electricity rates.
With utilities heavily reliant on natural gas, Florida Public Service Commission Chairman Andrew Fay expressed frustration about the costs and urged the regulatory panel to look at “risk management” to try to limit volatility in fuel prices.
“We don’t control fuel, and that makes this extremely challenging,” Fay said.
Customers’ bills are made up of a combination of expenses, such as base rates, fuel costs and environmental costs. The Public Service Commission meets each fall to consider certain costs, including fuel, and how much will be passed on to consumers in the ensuing year.
— Duke customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours will see their bills go from the current $150.02 to $168.90 in January, according to the commission.
— Tampa Electric customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours will see their bills go from $132.66 to $146.72.
— Florida Public Utilities Co. customers who use 1,000 kilowatt hours will see their bills go from $142.80 to $175.46.
For about a decade, a British health initiative called The Dry Challenge has gotten attention around this time of year because it involves millions of people around the world taking a month off from drinking alcohol. It is not a detox as much as it is a way for a person to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol.
Harvard Health Publishing said that Dry January gained some favor during the pandemic when surveys found people admitted they were drinking more than before the pandemic. The Harvard Health experts offer some ideas on how to successfully use the Dry January challenge:
Find a substitute non-alcoholic drink. For social situations, or when you crave a cocktail after a long day, reach for alcohol-free beverages like sparkling water, soda, or virgin beverages (non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic drinks.)
Non-alcoholic beer or wine also is an option, but some brands still contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume, so check the label. “Sugar is often added to these beverages to improve the taste, so try to choose ones that are low in sugar,” says Dawn Sugarman, a research psychologist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in the division of alcohol, drugs, and addiction.
Avoid temptations. Keep alcohol out of your house. When you are invited to someone’s home, bring your non-alcoholic drinks with you.
Create a support group. Let friends and family know about your intentions and encourage them to keep you accountable. Better yet, enlist someone to do the challenge with you.
Use the Try Dry app. This free app helps you track your drinking, set personal goals, and offers motivational information like calories and money saved from not drinking. It’s aimed at cutting back on or cutting out alcohol, depending on your choices.
Don’t give up. If you slip up, don’t feel guilty. Just begin again the next day.
Incidentally, I have seen various versions of Dry January that include “Damp January” which involves limiting alcohol rather than completely cutting it out.
Various publications (People, Shape) point to this book as a good resource for the one-month challenge.
While 31 days is a small chunk of the year, participating in Dry January may lead you to drink less in the months that follow. In a study with more than 800 people who took part in Dry January in 2018, the average amount of drinks that participants (including those who’d tried and failed the challenge) had in August of that year was 3.3 per week, compared to 4.3 per week before they participated in Dry January. Participants also reported that they’d saved money and felt that they’d slept better, had more energy, and had better skin after attempting Dry January.