Winters In St. Louis

By: joshuah , 1:50 AM GMT on March 15, 2014

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XKCD brought attention to my home town of St. Louis last month with a comic about how shifting baselines affect our perception of weather and climate change.

It's a clever refutal of the narrow claim that one instance of cold weather in one place disproves global warming. The comic points out the cherry-picking of that layer by taking things up a layer and showing that cold weather has actually decreased in that location over time.

However, we can show that this layer itself has a bit of cherry-picking to it. By using the NOAA data for St. Louis, we can see that sub-zero days have indeed decreased, but 100+ degree days have most certainly not increased. The picture is more complex than one might be led to believe simply by viewing XKCD.

You can't accuse someone of cherry-picking in one layer by cherry-picking from the layer above it!

The idea that "this used to happen all the time" can be further questioned by the fact that this winter (Dec to Feb) was on average the 10th coldest winter on record in Missouri. It has in fact only been colder than this nine times in the nearly 120-year record, so for states in the Midwest, it is difficult to argue that this winter reflects a shifting baseline of perceptions.

We can step back another layer and see that NOAA's record of average US temperatures have been climbing at a rate of 0.30 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, which on the one hand is a legitimate increase, and on the other hand is arguably not strong enough for the average person to notice a huge difference within their lifespan (ex. 2 degrees in 66 years).

Climate is more complicated than the skeptics Munroe is mocking think it is. Of course, it's also more complicated than Munroe thinks it is, too.

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About joshuah

I feed on data. I love to analyze data in more ways than most people care about and point out cherry-picking by any and all parties.