Have we ever seen quite so much in the way of global fireworks as what we’ve experienced in the first half of 2011? There have been no end of climatic catastrophes worldwide, from earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, record droughts in China and across all Asia, and five-times-normal rain-induced floods in Columbia. Here at home we’ve had our own floods up and down the Mississippi Valley, and already have witnessed a tornado season from hell, with massive destruction all across America, from Joplin to Tuscaloosa all the way to faraway Springfield, Massachusetts.
The events of recent months would seem to validate what climate scientists have been telling us for well over 20 years, i.e. the world is getting decidedly warmer as a result of our two centuries of dumping increasingly more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that behavior is now creating no end of meteorological disruption around the globe. But don’t bet on the American people getting that message any time soon. Last June, Gallup announced that fully 48 percent of Americans believed that “the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated,” the highest number of climate-change skeptics recorded by that polling organization since it first asked the question in 1997. Maybe all those Flat Earthers should have been here in Memphis last month, when our early season heat wave was, truly, one for the record books, as we set or tied all-time (since 1876) high-temperature records on four of June’s first ten days. Better yet, they might want to take a moment to look at the chart on this page. Numbers do sometimes speak louder than words.
What we have here are the lowest and highest monthly temperatures ever recorded in Memphis. To get inside these numbers, try picking a year at random from the second half of the twentieth century — I happened to select 1966, since I’d just gotten back from my forty-fifth high school reunion when I did this exercise — and divide the record-temperature numbers into before and after groups. The results may surprise you.
They’re sure to send a shiver up any climate-change skeptic’s spine. Of the 12 monthly highest-temperature-ever records, two-thirds (8) have been recorded since 1966. Bear in mind that my “Before 1966” group includes nearly a century’s worth of years (90), while the “After 1966” group is exactly half that size (45). So the actual breakdown is the exact opposite of what statistically “should” have happened. But that’s just lukewarm evidence when compared to how the 12 lowest-temperature-ever records break out. Amazing at it may seem, we have not broken one of those particular records in the past 45 years. The last time we had a day cold enough to qualify as a Memphis monthly lowest-ever-temperature was, as luck would have it, in 1966. Not since I graduated from high school, which, let me assure you, was a long time ago.
“Bah, humbug!” I can hear the Flat Earthers muttering. “This is all bogus nonsense, proving that you can ‘prove’ anything when you use data selectively.” Actually, I had the same thought myself. So that’s why I took the time to research Memphis’ daily temperature records, to see if compiling a list of 366 distinct record high and record low numbers produced less dramatic results. Here are the numbers on the highs:
Record highs recorded, 1876-1966: 188 days Record highs recorded, 1967-2011: 178 days
Slightly more than half the records were set in the earlier period, but the last 45 years still have generated significantly more heat records than raw math (given the different group sizes) would predict (122 days). And the record lows are another story altogether:
Record lows recorded, 1876-1966: 283 days Record lows recorded, 1967-2011: 83 days
I’m no Ph.D. statistician, but this modest bit of evidence certainly convinces me that the times, they are a-changin’ as regards heat in these parts. We may not be getting all that much hotter per se, but there’s no longer much question, in my mind at least, that Memphis is becoming significantly warmer on the lower end of the daily-temperature cycle.
Blame it on CO2 emissions. Blame it on Mother Nature just going through one of her cycles. Or blame it on the Big Guy Upstairs. Just don’t deny the fact that Memphis isn’t anywhere near as cool as it used to be.
John O’Leary is a longtime contributor to Memphis magazine. We are happy to have him back writing for us regularly.