Should Tennessee’s unseasonably warm February be cause for alarm?

February 2023 was an odd month for weather. The typical freezing breezes and harsh temperatures were nowhere in sight, as the sun shone and the temperatures climbed. The highest recorded temperature this February in Maryville was 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Students lounged outside on benches and hammocks, and many professors made use of the outdoor classrooms. One can’t help but wonder, What’s the culprit of such unseasonably warm weather?

The first thing to know is the difference between weather and climate. Dr. David Unger, associate professor of biology at Maryville College, broke it down. “Weather is the short term…what you feel on a daily or weekly basis. Climate is the very, very long term…There have been very, very warm temperatures and very, very cold temperatures out of sync throughout history. The difference with what we’re seeing now is a consistent trend. And the consistent trend is showing that we have consistently, year-to-year, warmer and warmer and warmer climate… [which] feels like warmer weather.” 

The effects of climate change can vary from place-to-place. While Tennesseans enjoyed lovely spring-like weather, states on the West Coast experienced unprecedented snowfall. Ryan Maue, a meteorologist and former NOAA chief scientist described it as “once-in-a-generation.” Dr. Unger explained that as water evaporates from the ocean, it collects in clouds and is eventually released as precipitation. If the climate is warmer, even if the weather is still at freezing temperatures, more precipitation occurs, since more water evaporates. 

Dr. Unger cited a “yo-yo” effect of the changing climate that can result in droughts or floods, humidity or dry air, hot or freezing temperatures and more. All can potentially be attributed to global warming, along with natural weather phenomena. 

Benjamin Cathey, an award-winning meteorologist and climate reporter for WVLT, said that the sunny, warm weather made this February the second warmest in Knoxville’s history. The average temperature was 50.9 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 7.9 degrees above the norm.

“The weather is always weird, which makes this a fun career. No two days are ever the same! We went from the coldest December weather in decades to record highs, all within a short time,” said Cathey. Despite the fact that we have seen less weird temperatures in March, this February was still extremely impactful. 

Students and scientists alike can enjoy the weather, but students should also consider the reasons behind that weather. Clara Webster, freshman Political Science major, said, “I personally really love the temperature that the weather has been lately [and] all the flowers are blooming pretty early… There is that, like, instant gratification that we all get from the warmth, and then there’s also that underlying, like, Should this really be happening right now? I do think this is because of climate change.” 

Webster said that while her favorite part of the weather has been walking outside and the nice breezes, the constant switching between cold and warm is frustrating and uncomfortable for her and for the plants and animals. 

Webster’s concerns are founded. Dr. Unger explained, “All you have to do is look at the evidence,” said Dr. Unger. “All you have to do is measure it. It’s not mystery; it’s not magic; it’s not anything that can be refuted…We‘re already seeing animals migrating. We’re already seeing flowers blooming earlier. We’re seeing pollinators coming out earlier. But, perhaps most important… agricultural practices that never would’ve been performed up north are now being performed up north… The climate is allowing us to grow these crops farther north than we ever have. So, we’re migrating with it too, in terms of our agricultural practices.” 

Dr. Unger cited a study published by Penn State University called “Warming Midwest conditions may result in corn, soybean production moving north.” He explained that as the climate changes, production will need to move to the places with the best conditions, as they already have begun to. So, not only are we enjoying the changing climate with t-shirts and shorts in February, but we also see climate change in less obvious ways and over longer periods of time. 

Helping the planet starts with getting informed. If you would like to learn more about your role in combating climate change, head to the US Environmental Protection Agency website. 

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