The Heat Is Online

First Quarter of 2000 Sets Record

1st Quarter Sets Warmth Record

By Curt Suplee, The Washington Post, April 19, 2000

The first quarter of this year was the warmest such three-month period in the United States during the past 106 years of record keeping, federal officials announced yesterday.

The average temperature in January, February and March was 41.7 degrees Fahrenheit, one degree higher than the previous first-quarter record set in 1990, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced. In addition, NOAA data show, the nine-month period from June 1999 to March 2000 was the hottest similar interval on record.

"Our climate is warming at a faster rate than ever before recorded," NOAA Administrator D. James Baker told a news conference in New Orleans.

At the event, James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), noted that there were 460 major disasters declared by the federal government during the 1990s, compared with 237 during the 1980s.

"There is no doubt that the human and financial costs of weather-related disasters have been increasing in recent years," Witt said.

Nearly all of that increase, however, is due to changes in the way people live, and not to substantial alterations in the weather.

"We have a society that is more sensitive than it has ever been in the past to weather," Baker said in an interview prior to the New Orleans announcement. "We are expending more and more every year for damages to more expensive infrastructure," he said, owing to a "doubling of population living near the coast during the past 10 years. Every big storm costs us a lot more money."

Each year, more Americans flock to coastal regions and riverside areas that are historically prone to storm damage. Considerable construction now occurs in places that traditionally witnessed only sparse or sporadic development.

As a result, damages from floods, hurricanes and the like are apt to be more widespread and expensive every year.

But climate scientists have seen no trend involving an increase in the number or severity of hurricanes, tornadoes, big floods or wind storms. Apparently, this is the case not only in the United States but worldwide as well. Many experts have warned for years that increased warming of the air at the Earth's surface could lead to a dramatic rise in the frequency and intensity of catastrophic weather events. So far, that has not occurred.

What the NOAA data show, Baker said, is that the amount of precipitation in the largest storm systems has been growing. That is the outcome one might expect if gradual global warming evaporated greater quantities of water into the atmosphere.

"What we're seeing is that, in stronger storms, the amount of rainfall per storm has been increasing, up about 10 percent" in recent decades, Baker said. "That's the only real measure we have at this point for increased intensity of extreme events. However, we are also seeing a slight increase in the number of heat waves and in the number of days in a row when nighttime temperatures set records."

During the first three months of 2000, every state in the continental United States was warmer than average, with Oklahoma, Iowa and Wisconsin setting records for the January-to-March period.

This year's winter warmth is likely to exacerbate the drought conditions that persisted in many parts of the United States during 1998 and 1999, produced in large part by La Nina conditions.

La Nina, the opposite of El Nino, occurs when cooler-than-average sea water accumulates in the equatorial Pacific. Typically, it causes winter temperatures that are higher than average in the Southeast and lower than normal in the Northwest.

"We're witnessing very typical warm and dry conditions" in the middle of the country and in the southern-tier states, Baker said, "along with a wet Pacific Northwest. So there are really two things in the current pattern--the underlying warming trend plus the overlay of La Nina conditions."

That situation, Baker said, is likely to continue for another three to six months. During that period, southern-tier states from Arizona to Florida will be at increased risk of drought, along with parts of Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company