Weather v Climate – A streetwise guide

Hot and cold. Wet and dry. We live with constant change from the elements. But how do we know when the whims of our weather are wandering off the straight and narrow more permanently?

A richly varied mix

I took a walk along the high street the other day. There was the usual mix of people. Mothers with babies in prams and children rushing by; some much older people moving more sedately, and groups of young adults and teenagers in the mix too. Some had fair hair, others were dark or brunette. Several had greying locks; some – no locks at all.

The hustle-bustle of the high street is matched by the scattergun nature of our weather – a bit of everything!

The average of all these people could be described as the “typical” person on my high street but, as we all know, it actually comprises a huge array of really different individuals.

The weather is a bit like the people in our high street – richly varied. Sunshine, rain, snow, fog, gales. Just as, occasionally, we might meet a really tall person in the street so, every so often, we experience a very snowy afternoon. On another occasion, a succession of children might run along the street, rather like a quick stream of heavy showers. Nothing out of the ordinary – it’s all part of the mix.

‘Noisy’ signals

If we collect all the different types of weather we experience, we can summarise their range of characteristics as our climate. Just the same as our ‘typical’ person on the high street, the average is made up of a hugely varied assortment of weather.

Both also behave rather chaotically. The hustle-bustle of the high street is matched by the scattergun nature of our weather – a bit of everything!

And just as different people don’t pass by at regular intervals, neither does the weather.We know from experience how it tends to crop up in irregular ‘lumps’. Wet and dry, cold and warm – these spells come in various shapes and sizes.

Now different towns have different demographics. A Manchester street may typically contain proportionately more young people than a street in, say, Bexhill-on-Sea

Amidst the chaos, it’s hard to see the ‘wood for the trees’

Similarly, different regions have different climates, as a result of their own environments. Rio, on average, has more rain per year than Vegas.

Admittedly, at any one particular moment, the opposite may be true, but it doesn’t disprove the bigger picture. It’s just that there’s a lot of ‘noise’ that can disguise things. Amidst the chaos, it’s hard to see the ‘wood for the trees’.

Emerging trends

But climate science, like demography, takes a longer view, away from the confusion of day-to-day events. The climates of Rio and Vegas, like the populations of Manchester and Bexhill, do change. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they always have. With climate, the changes have often been glacial – literally and metaphorically. At the other extreme, plagues and war can alter populations more dramatically. Either way, the norms evolve because the environmental drivers behind them change.

Short-term fluctuations of weather may continue to provide a disguise

So by learning how the background environment works, we can predict how things may change in the future.

What, then, can we expect? The make-up of my town and yours – with their rich array of folks on the high street – might evolve slowly in the decades to come. But here’s the difference this time around. They’ll be wearing a lot less!

The affect of man-made CO2 on the atmosphere means the world is heading in a warmer direction – and quickly. As a result, we’ve already warmed by well over 1C since pre-industrial times and the rate is accelerating!

An urgent message

Short-term fluctuations of weather may continue to provide a disguise. Yes, just as I haven’t a clue who I’ll bump into next time I’m in town, so I don’t have a huge idea what the precise weather will be like then either. Maybe it will snow!

Yet don’t let this blind us into thinking that forecasters haven’t got a clue about the bigger picture. They do. And it is only a matter of time before we’ll all notice the effects.

It’s a serious message that we can’t hide away from. In fact, none of us on the high street can.

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