Yesterday I spoke with my brother, and he told me that this past August was the hottest August on record, making for something like eleven months in a row now of the hottest months on record. This despite the fact that here in the Great American Midwest, it wasn’t a bad summer. I don’t know if the temperature ever hit 100°. People who don’t have the courage to face up to the reality of climate change will shrug and say ‘What global warming? It feels fine to me!’ It’s like saying ‘What increase in gun violence? I haven’t been shot yet!’
As with all scientifically verifiable conditions it’s not about what you see right in front of you, it’s what is statistically valid. That warmest August on record is a worldwide measure, not the measure for your hometown; and the fact that you can still sit comfortably on your patio in August drinking lemonade doesn’t mean that the Maldives aren’t rapidly being swamped by rising seas.
For me, one of the notable effects of climate change is in what feels like a shift of seasons. According to the date on the calendar, we should be in autumn. It started two days ago. But the temperatures have been in the 90s, the heat and humidity very summerlike. I see women out on the streets in wool skirts with big scarves around their necks. They are anxious to don their fall fashion finery, even if it means sweating beneath layers of warm clothing. Autumn is just not here yet, and it’s the last week of September.
Of course, we don’t expect the seasons to change automatically, as if someone throws a switch when the appropriate date arrives. We don’t even agree about which date to use. For a long time, in traditional terms, the seasons have been dictated by the dates of the solstices and equinoxes. But this can be an odd measure, since we can see a lot if wintery weather before the late December winter solstice, or be deep into spring well before the vernal equinox.
Back in 1780, in search of some kind of certainty, Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria convened a group of meteorologists he called the Societas Meteorologica Palatina, charged with formalizing how weather and climate were studied. This group decided that the meteorological seasons would be defined by temperature, and designated as three-month periods beginning on the first day of the first month in which that season’s temperature pattern prevailed. Spring would run from March 1 to May 31, summer from June 1 to August 31. Even though the group only lasted until 1795, meteorologists still recognize these seasons.
But you see the problem: according to the meteorological definition, autumn should have begun September 1, and here it is September 25 and it still hasn’t come. But even as I’m typing this I look out the window to see a breeze riffling the leaves, which are all tinged with golden brown. There is rain predicted for this afternoon, the leading edge of a cold front. By tomorrow, we’ll all be digging into closets for our woolies and scarves.
Did you hear that NASA recently announced some interesting news regarding the signs of the Zodiac? For one thing, the ancient Babylonians, who basically created the Zodiac, named 13 signs, not 12. One was dropped when annual dating was being formalized into a 12-month calendar. Not only that, but due to shifts in the earth’s axis, it no longer points to the same constellations it did those several thousand years ago. Meaning, of course, that the sign you may believe rules your life is possibly not your sign at all.
Things change. People who can’t face up to the reality of climate change often say that the changes we are currently seeing (if they acknowledge them at all) are the same kind of climate shift that has happened before on our planet. It has naught to do with human activity. Okay, let’s say that’s true. So maybe we need to reevaluate and decide anew when our various seasons start. Say October 1 is the beginning of Autumn, and January 1 the start of winter. But these things, like the seasons on our planet and our reading of the stars in the sky, should be long term: that old Babylonian Zodiac was created long ago, even before most of the books of the Old Testament were written. If we change the dates when seasons begin today, how long will that last? How long will it even matter?