This seems like a good moment to remind you that anytime we break a weather record from the 1930s, we’re really accomplishing something.
This week’s cold wave (or cold blitzkrieg) has been historic on many fronts, and Yankton was no different. We set a record last Sunday for the coldest maximum temperature on Valentine’s Day with a high of just -6, which broke the old mark of +2 degrees recorded in 1936. On Monday morning, Yankton then tied the record for a daily low with a reading of -25, matching the mark that, again, hailed from 1936.
These frozen little nuggets remind us of just how devastating the 1930s were weather-wise. They were the “Dust Bowl” years, with all the hot, parched misery the term suggests. However, it wasn’t solely a time filled with miserable heat records, many of which are still on the books; numerous records for cold weather are still around from that decade, as this week’s thresholds suggest.
In other words, it was a decade of devastating extremes, which created myriad hardships and consequences. Many people uprooted from the parched plains and moved west to escape the dust and heat. On the plus side, the lessons of the Dust Bowl changed land management practices in numerous beneficial ways.
Some will also argue that the 1930s stand as proof that weather extremes have a historical precedent, which undercuts one of the key arguments for the science behind climate change.
But the Dust Bowl as we know it was a period of extremes confined mostly to the central and southern plains of the United States. It didn’t impact everywhere; for example, there was a reason people headed to places like California.
The current weather climate, however, is a global situation that has been building for many decades.
This polar vortex — a vast gulf of cold air that was building over the Arctic for several weeks until it finally broke out — has spread across much of the Northern Hemisphere. While we’ve watched the struggles in Texas (whose power grid issues have had a cascade effect on states across the Central Plains), there has also been heavy snowfall in places like Athens, Greece, and Moscow (where, according to The Hill newspaper, it’s being called a “snow apocalypse”). Parts of Spain and Scotland have also endured prodigious snowfall and cold, and even the deserts of the Middle East have seen a rare layer of light snowfall.
Meanwhile, Australia in the Southern Hemisphere is facing yet another summer heatwave with temperatures running more than 40 degrees (F) above normal.
These may be abnormal weather extremes, but they are becoming pronounced and more commonplace. No one event proves that climate change is real, but the preponderance of such events eventually grows into a critical mass of reality.
However, the current polar vortex is also showing how unprepared we generally are to deal with some of these extremes. There have been efforts this week to blame the problems in Texas on green energy and wind power, but Texas utilities officials don’t back that up. Instead, they point to an inadequate infrastructure geared more for profit than for efficiency, which led to frozen machinery and interrupted natural gas supplies. It’s estimated that the freezing of wind turbines accounted for only 13% of the total lost power that has left millions of people shivering, without water and unprepared for this frigid onslaught. The system failed them completely.
This creates a lot of questions, and we’ll need answers, both short term and long term, in order to deal with and live with what, unfortunately, seems to be growing into the norm.
However, the 1930s offer us some lessons about that. Once, we learned from our mistakes and made profound adjustments that altered our land management. Back then, we could fix things. We could change.
We will probably need that again, albeit magnified several times over. It is an immense task, but we have shown that we can meet any challenge, if we can summon the will — which is often driven by the painful lessons and pressing needs.
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