So, how ‘bout this climate we’re having?

On Jan. 5 record breaking temperatures swept over southern Manitoba. Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport reached a high of 6.4 C, Portage la Prairie and Winkler hit 10 C and 11 C, respectively.

Environment Canada cites Winnipeg’s historical average temperatures for Jan. 5 at a maximum of -13 C, a minimum of -22.9 C, with the (former) record warmth of 4.4 C registered in 1949. We just narrowly missed the record for January set at 7.8 C on Jan. 23, 1942.

The social networking multiverse was abuzz with even more vacuous weather-related updates than usual, awash with conversational tropes of the “how ‘bout this weather we’re having?!” and “woo-hoo, go globull warming, bring it on!” variety. One can only hope that sentiments resembling the latter comment are offered in jest.

What are we to make of these balmy temperatures, and days like Jan. 5, that appear to be increasing both in frequency and intensity?

“We’ve had temperatures this warm. In the ’40s a number of records were set around these temperatures. When records have been set, many have been set in the last decade or couple of decades,” reflected professor Ron Stewart, department head of the University of Manitoba’s environment and geography faculty. “[Also,] since we’ve had relatively little snow cover, there is less radiation reflected into outer space, and more absorbed in to the ground [making it warmer], and there are a lot of feedback mechanisms that go into that.”

A rather tempting trap is to attribute a single unseasonably warm day like this to global warming and to confuse “weather” with “climate.”

“This is weather; it’s a nice day. It’s what you see out your window. Climate is much more, driven by a trend in that weather signal,” said professor David Barber, Canada Research Chair in Arctic system science, in an interview with the Manitoban.

“[Climate] is concerned with how things change over time,” he added.

“Is this weather related to the climate? Of course we can’t really say that until we have a long-term trend.”

“Climate,” according to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is a shorthand expression for a very nuanced and complex concept, and not something you can readily point-out when walking through the park. As opposed to “weather,” which is perhaps more intuitive and may be objectively remarked upon by the casual observer: climate is comprised of the cumulative effects of many environmental factors — like temperature, wind and precipitation (i.e. weather) — on a location or locations over long stretches of time.

“People are used to their immediate surroundings. They see a really warm day in January; [they know] there must be something weird going on. [But] this particular day is not connected to climate change. This is one day,” said Barber. “In the high arctic, we’ve been seeing the arctic ice-pack decline. I’ve been studying this for 30 years. Such large changes in the arctic concern me a lot.”

Distinctions between climate and weather may seem subtle, but they are important to our understanding and appreciation of phenomena like global warming, how it works, and ultimately how civilization impacts these trends. According to Barber  “we could have a -10 C day in May. Quite often people talk about climate variability interchangeably with weather change.”

Of course, the earth has always gone through heating-cooling cycles — the latest ice age saw 97 per cent of Canada covered in ice and was only 20,000 years ago, a mere blink of the eye on geological time scales. But, as Barber notes, “30 years ago, models predicted we would see the kind of temperature increase in the arctic that we’re seeing. These models we’re using today are saying by 2050 we’re going to see between a 4 and 8 C increase globally, and three times that in the arctic.”

According to Stewart, there are current climate models in place that are concerned with quantifying precisely how much of the current trajectory of global warming is attributable to human enterprise. “[The goal is] to run long scale models with and without green house gas enhancements to see if the same conditions would still be effected. In the next 5-10 years we will see that if we didn’t contribute green house gas, maybe the temperature would’ve raised to only 5 C [on Jan. 5] instead of 7 C.”

This data will only strengthen what the majority of scientists already consider conventional wisdom. Even so, there are those with vested interests who are keener on maintaining the status quo (read: fossil fuel development) than, for instance, investing in renewable energy technologies.

Professor Barber drew a comparison to illustrate his point. “Why is it that we have one technology — telecommunications — that has grown in leaps and bounds, and another industry that essentially still has the same internal combustion technology it started with?”

“On the one side, we have a technology being developed that is innovative and changing rapidly; it is unfettered. The other is suffering from a desire not to change because [ . . . ] there are forces in the economy and market place that want to keep selling fossil fuels.”