Anyone who listens to weather reports has heard meteorologists comment that yesterday’s temperature was 3 degrees above normal, or last month was much drier than normal. But what does “normal” mean in this context – and in a world in which the climate is changing?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released updated “climate normals” – datasets that the agency produces every 10 years to give forecasters and the public baseline measurements of average temperature, rainfall and other conditions across the U.S. As the state climatologist and assistant state climatologist for Colorado, we work with this information all the time. Here’s what climate normals are, how they’ve changed, and how you can best make sense of them.
What are the new normals?
NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information released the new set of normals, covering 1991-2020, on May 4, 2021. Climatologists have been performing calculations on data from long-term observing stations around the country for a wide range of parameters, including high and low temperature, precipitation and snowfall.
The data also includes more detailed statistics, like the normal number of days below freezing or those with more than an inch of snowfall. NOAA puts data from individual stations onto a grid to enable the creation of useful maps for the entire country, even in places with relatively few observing stations. This provides a wealth of information for anyone interested in the climate of a specific area.
Why are normals updated?
The World Meteorological Organization sets international standards for climatological normals, defined as a 30-year periods that are regularly updated. The idea is to have global consistency for analysis. The 30-year normals also create a benchmark that represents recent climate conditions and serves as a reference for assessing current conditions.
Climate change highlights the need for regularly updating these normals. For the past 10 years, weather professionals have used the 1981-2010 climate normals as our reference. But we’ve observed above-average temperatures much more frequently than below-average temperatures from 1991-2020 for much of the U.S. Updating the normals is a way to calibrate to our most recently observed climate.
And as the climate continues to change, the further away in time we get from the “normal” period, the less representative that period will become. Using a very long period of time, or not regularly updating the period, could lead to including observations that would be extremely unlikely in our climate today.
On the other hand, there are situations in which it makes sense to consider periods longer than 30 years – for example, to understand long-term changes to the climate or to monitor extremes.
The concept of ‘normal’ in weather and climate
An old saying, often attributed to Mark Twain, asserts that “climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get.” Calculations of normal climate conditions for particular locations show how this works.
For example, data from the long-term weather and climate observing station in Fort Collins, Colorado, where we work, shows that precipitation in summer (June, July and August) over the 30 years from 1991 to 2020 varied significantly from year to year. The lowest summer rainfall was 1.48 inches in 2002 and the highest was 14.79 inches in 1997. Most years, it’s somewhere between 3 and 5 inches.
But few years match the average value, just shy of 5 inches. So even though we call this the “normal” amount of rainfall, in most years the total is higher or lower – sometimes by quite a bit.
Looking at summer temperatures from the same station, let’s compare the previous 30-year period, 1981-2010, with the most recent 30-year period, 1991-2020. The data shows a shift toward higher temperatures between the two time periods. The normal summer temperature increased by nearly 1 degree, from 69.6 to 70.4 F. This “new normal” for the past 30 years reflects climate warming that has occurred both locally and globally.
What the new normals show
The key change that’s reflected in shifting from the 1981-2010 normals to the new 1991-2020 set is dropping the 1980s and adding the 2010s. The climate has been warming, so the new normals show higher temperatures for most regions and most months of the year.
Across the continental U.S., the temperature rose by about 0.5 F on average from the 1981-2010 to 1991-2020 period. The new average is 1.2 F warmer than that of the 20th century. A couple of exceptions are cooling observed in the spring over the Northern Great Plains and cooling over the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic in November. December shows the greatest amount of warming.
Precipitation is more variable than temperature from year to year and decade to decade. As a result, the changes in normal precipitation represent a mix of effects from long-term climate change and natural variations.
Overall, the 2010s were very wet in much of the central and eastern U.S. and dry in the west, and the normals reflect that. Average annual rainfall in Houston increased by over an inch, to 55.6 inches per year, while at Phoenix, Arizona, it dropped from an already dry 8.02 inches to a parched 7.22 inches per year.
On a monthly basis, some of the most notable patterns to emerge are widespread drying in November, particularly over the Gulf states and along the Pacific Coast, and a wetter pattern over the eastern half of the country in April.
Shifting to new climate normals can have counterintuitive effects. For example, in the next few years there may be a better chance that you’ll see what are now described as cooler-than-normal temperatures in a given day or month. Using Fort Collins again as an example, before the update, a summer average temperature of 70 F would have been slightly warmer than normal. Now that same summer would go down as being slightly cooler than normal, even though it would still be warmer than around 100 of the 127 years in the history of that location.
Meteorologists and climatologists are already starting to incorporate these new normals into our work. But when you hear the term “normal,” keep in mind that it reflects a 30-year snapshot and represents a different reality today than it did 30, 60 or 100 years ago.
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Russ Schumacher, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science and Colorado State Climatologist, Colorado State University and Becky Bolinger, Assistant State Climatologist and Research Scientist in Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Two local irrigation districts are looking to replace the aging Grand Valley Power hydroelectric plant by the Colorado River near Palisade with a new, adjacent plant after deciding against trying to keep the old plant running.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association expect to spend some $10 million, not counting cash spending and in-kind contributions to date, on what is to be called the Vinelands Power Plant. It will replace a plant that dates to the early 1930s.
The existing plant is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation but administered by the two local irrigation entities, with Orchard Mesa Irrigation overseeing day-to-day operations and Grand Valley Water Users diverting water for it. The local entities hold a lease of power privilege contract granted by Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the existing plant, and will be negotiating a new lease with the agency for the new plant.
Those negotiations take place in public, and are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday in a virtual meeting on a Microsoft Teams platform. Information on joining the meeting may be obtained by contacting Justyn Liff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-248-0625.
A 30-minute public comment session will follow a scheduled two hours of negotiations, and negotiations will continue on another day if needed, said Ryan Christianson, water management chief for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said the hope is to begin construction on the new plant this fall and to have it operating within a year or so afterward.
The irrigation entities had been proceeding on parallel tracks, both pursuing continued operation of the existing plant and considering the possibility of replacing it…
Only one of the current plant’s two turbines is being used now. Harris said if the plant were rehabilitated, it could produce up to about 3.5 megawatts of power, compared to close to 5 megawatts for the new one.
Power from the plant had been sold to Xcel Energy, but starting this year, it is being sold to Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs.
Harris said the new plant will be owned 51% by irrigators and 49% by Idaho-based Sorenson Engineering, which will build it. Harris said the company has built several power plants for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.
The Palisade plant will be built on land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and by Orchard Mesa Irrigation. The project also makes use of fairly senior federal water rights and a federal canal to supply the plant, which are also reasons why the lease with the Bureau of Reclamation is required.
For the plant’s owners, the project will produce revenues from selling power to Holy Cross. Harris said irrigators also benefit because water that supplies the plant also improves the ability to get irrigation water into a canal at the upstream “roller dam” diversion point at times when the Colorado River is running low.
However, the dam has broader benefits as well. Harris said the Bureau of Reclamation holds a water right for the plant of 400 cubic feet per second in the summer and 800 cfs in the winter. That water helps bolster flows immediately downstream in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, an area of critical importance for four endangered fish because water levels can fall so low between where irrigation diversions occur for Grand Valley uses and the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River downstream.
Keeping a power plant operating protects the federal water rights and helps in ensuring compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the fish, which Harris said benefits not just local irrigators but numerous other water diverters on the Colorado River in the state, including diverters of water to the Eastern Slope.
The plant’s benefit to the fish has helped in securing a lot of partner funding for the new plant, from sources such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust.
From KUER (Kate Groetzinger):
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a clear connection between access to clean water and public health, according to Navajo tribal member Bidtah Becker.
Becker is part of a group called the Water & Tribes Initiative that advocates for water access in Indian Country. She said the pandemic has made it easier to ask Congress for money to solve the problem.
“The conversation has shifted from, ‘Oh no, you could never get that amount of money.’ And there’s always a little subtext of, ‘Are you really deserving of that money?’” she said. “Now it’s like, ‘Yes. Everybody needs clean drinking water. No questions asked.”
Becker said a significant amount of funding is needed to bring clean, running water to every Native American household in the U.S.
Her group hired University of Utah law professor Heather Tanana to compile a report on the issues tribes in the Colorado River Basin face when it comes to clean water delivery. Tanana, who is Navajo, looked at four components: lack of infrastructure, contamination, increasing demand and insufficient maintenance funding.
“Even though we only looked at the Colorado River Basin tribes, we can confidently say every tribe in the U.S. is dealing with one of these issues,” she said.
Here’s Joe Lewandowski’s guest column about his retirement from Colorado Parks & Wildlife that’s running in The Pagosa Springs Sun:
Storytellers, often, are relegated to the outside but always trying to look in, constantly hoping for entry into some unique situation or adventure or thought process that functions to make a story compelling, heart-wrenching or, simply, interesting.
I started my formal storytelling career in Colorado as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in Vail in the late 1970s. After more than 20 years writing for four newspapers and a dozen other publications and websites, I tired of the daily deadline grind. That’s when I saw an advertisement for a “Public Information Officer” (PIO) for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
While the job would be a step away from objective journalism, I knew it would offer a unique vantage point for storytelling. Fortunately, my experience proved worthy and in 2005, I landed the position as the PIO for what was then DOW’s Southwest Region, a location of big mountain ranges, vast expanses of public lands, canyons, rivers and, of course, abundant wildlife. I saw this as a story-rich environment.
The job provided the unique position I’d often thought about — being on the inside. I worked alongside biologists, district wildlife managers (DWMs, once called game wardens), wildlife researchers, hatchery man- agers and later, park rangers and managers. My job entailed asking them questions, explaining their good work to the public and conveying the importance of wildlife and outdoor spaces and recreation to the people of Colorado. For the first time in my writing career, I was working on the same team as my sources. I was focused on positive, one-sided stories — something my journalistic colleagues would likely frown upon.
As I got to know my colleagues, I started hearing about things I’d never known. Sure, I’d always considered myself an environmentalist, but I didn’t know about the importance of the nitty-gritty on-the-ground work being done by dedicated, smart, professional biologists and scientists who care deeply about wildlife. And an extra bonus for me — most of them loved to talk about their work.
In no time, I was going out on the types of adventures I’d dreamed about as a kid. Walking into wild, untrammeled and mysterious locations on the lookout for wildlife.
Consider the subject matter I was given to work with:
Along with three others tracking newborn lynx, I stood on a ridge and looked down onto a hillside thick with trees, fallen logs, boulders and brush. The crew had found the gen- eral location of a female lynx thanks to its telemetry collar. The cat’s move- ments had stopped, indicating that it had made a den and given birth. Our job that day was to find the kit- tens, assess the litter and record the findings.
The lead researcher, Tanya, said, “OK, let’s find the kittens.”
Looking at the forest tangle, I was incredulous. “Where do we look?” I asked.
Tanya laughed and said, “Under every log and bush and outcrop.”
An hour later, she yelled out that she’d found the kittens. Three, each a little fur-ball, not much bigger than a coffee cup. The kittens cried and squirmed; and circling us warily but helplessly prowled the mother, issuing low, mournful growls.
And then I got to write a story about that little adventure.
On other occasions, I rode along with DWMs making the rounds along remote roads during hunting season. When we’d pull up to a camp, hunters would happily walk out to greet us and pepper the wildlife officer with questions about where to find the elk. On another ride-along, I observed as a DWM explained to an Oklahoma couple that the location of the two cow elk they’d killed was far from the area described on their licenses. They each had to pay a $1,500 fine, didn’t get to take the meat home and had to admit their guilt.
In early summer one year, I accompanied a crew of about 10 into the Weminuche Wilderness to find native cutthroat trout in a tumbling, 15-foot wide stream. The crew carried “electrofishing” gear, shocked the water and stunned the fish temporarily. Then the aquatic biologists spawned the fish right on the stream bank, placed the fertilized eggs in a container and took them back to the Durango hatchery. The eggs hatched and from a few dozen fish, thousands of progeny eventually emerged and eventually restocked. I learned that the success of natural reproduction by fish is about 1 percent, but nearly 100 percent at a hatchery. Some purists criticize the human meddling, but without our help, there would be very few, if any, native cutthroat trout. Of course, it was humans who screwed up the trout’s habitat in the first place. So, this work on a backcountry stream showed that humans can also right some wrongs.
While I never doubted that most people value wildlife, I learned through this job that deliberate effort is needed to maintain this resource. Thanks to far-sighted conservationists who stepped up in previous cen- turies to maintain natural systems, latter-day conservationists working for wildlife agencies can dedicate their life’s work to the conservation of wildlife.
One early spring day, I stood on the banks of a small stream that courses from the flanks of the Uncompahgre Plateau toward the Gunnison River. Kevin, an aquatics researcher, explained that this stream often goes dry by mid-summer. Yet three species of native fish — the flannel mouth sucker, the bluehead sucker and the roundtail chub — make a run up this stream every year to spawn. Sometimes called “trash fish” because they usually don’t rise to an angler’s lure, Kevin showed me the beauty and uniqueness of these species. These fish have survived for tens of thousands of years and are only found in the greater Colorado River Basin. They battle torrents of icy run-off, survive in silt-filled water and often spend months in muddy pools. The suckers are built like 2-foot long torpedoes, sturdy and streamlined. And Colorado Parks and Wildlife employs aquatic biologists to make sure these fish survive the continuing onslaught of physical insults humans throw at them.
I wrote about that, too, hoping that readers would gain an under- standing of why we can’t lose these unique creatures. Because if we do, something of ourselves will die along with them.
I’ve crawled into dens with bears — they, fully sedated — while researchers examined cubs and changed GPS collars on the sows. A couple of times, I was enlisted to hold 3-pound cubs underneath my jacket to keep them warm while the researchers finished their work. They whined and growled and squirmed and clawed and I fell in love with them immediately.
Another day, I squeezed into a tight opening of a cave located in a small canyon in western Colorado. Hidden in the back were lion cubs. As I crawled, I listened to Ken, a mountain lion researcher “We have a collar on the mother and we know from the GPS signal that she’s far away hunting and eating. That’s a good thing, because if she showed up while we were taking her cubs she’d turn us into confetti.”
I paused as I considered our vulnerability. But I had every reason to trust Ken, who had worked for three decades studying mountain lions. We pulled three cubs from the cave, placed small radio collars on them (they’d rot and fall off in a couple of months), collected blood for the genetic information it would provide and returned the cubs safely to the cave.
I’ve been along for the capture of pronghorn, turkeys, deer, elk and bighorn sheep. I’ve placed my hands on them and felt the magnificent fur, muscles and bones of these animals that spend all of their living minutes in the wild lands of Colorado.
All my stories, of course, weren’t about adventures. I also wrote about meetings and proposals and other mundane and necessary business to which a public agency must attend.
The great stories, the interesting stories, however, I was always ready and willing to tell. At parties and in grocery stores, people would ask me about some critter they saw or about something I had written. On chairlifts or in random meetings in bars or along trails with strangers, I was often asked what I did for a living in Durango. As soon as I started explaining my job, it was always apparent that people wanted to know more. I was happy to tell them a quick story and proud to say that I worked for an agency that was dedicated to taking care of wildlife and land and water.
Now, however, after 16 years with the agency, 45 years in Colorado and 67 years as a resident of this planet, I am taking my leave from this job. I feel honored and privileged to have been hired to tell my fellow Colora- dans all these stories.
I owe a great debt to all the people in this agency who took the time to explain the intricacies of how a ptarmigan molts, how a bear knows when to go into hibernation, the value of wetlands, how to reestablish native trout and more and more. To those who have read my stuff, I thank you. And rest assured that there are many more stories to come from the next lucky writer who gets this job.
Joe Lewandowski retired as o the PIO for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest Region on April 30.
From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Joe Napolitan):
During the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District board meeting on Tuesday, May 4, Town Public Works Director Martin Schmidt shared increasing concerns with the town’s wastewater pumping.
“About a year ago, I came to the board with a report from an engineer from the company that sold us the pumps, Sulzer, and they were very confident in a replacement pump to be put into the lift stations because it would solve our net-pressure suction head issue,” Schmidt said. “It exacerbated issues down the line and acceler- ated some pump failures. That’s a big issue.”
In his agenda brief, Schmidt states that after the board approved pur- chasing a different pump that was recommended by the supplier, the newer pump exacerbated issues with other parts of the pumping train and inadvertently increased the speed of the pump failures at the lift stations.
“What we need is a system that will pump sewage and not destroy pumps at the rate they’re destroying them,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt explained that pumps should be lasting between 15 and 20 years with minor maintenance. Currently, some of them are lasting not even six months.
“Staff has been working on a solution for this from the very moment we realized the problem has been occurring,” he said. “We worked with them throughout the fall and into the winter and around Christmastime, we realized Sulzer wasn’t coming forward with any reasonable solutions.”
During a phone call the follow- ing day, Phillips explained several options for the emergency backups she referred to during the meeting.
“We do have an overflow vault that is located under the ground next to Pump Station 1, and that is for taking any kind of overflow that the pumps would not be able to handle,” she said. “That would get us maybe about 12 hours of time and if we needed to do more than that, we’ve identified a supplier of a bypass pump that we would utilize.”
Phillips explained that there are two pump stations with four pumps each in service at any given time. Typically 150,000 to 250,000 gallons per day of wastewater are being pumped. Both pump stations are suffering from issues.
“We also could utilize the existing old sewer lagoons that are down there, one of which is par- tially lined,” she said. “We could get several days of overflow by utilizing those old lagoons, and in the meantime would be requesting emergency assistance from Sulzer and other suppliers to ship us on an emergency basis additional pumps.”
“We are waiting on [the engineer’s] report. I anticipated it this afternoon; it will probably be here tomorrow,” said Schmidt during the meeting.
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
Wind blowing down from burned forests caressed a knoll where leaders from the Biden administration and Congress sat in camp chairs Friday, looking over charts showing massive new fire breaks along Colorado’s Front Range, mobilizing to combat cascading climate warming impacts…
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a key player in carrying out President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, anchored this summit, calling the intensification of wildfires in the West a crisis and declaring “now is the time to dramatically infuse resources into forests.”
Americans “are becoming more sensitive to climate change, and forests play an incredibly important role. We’re committed to a net-zero U.S. agriculture industry by 2050, but that won’t make any difference if our forests continue to burn up… Hopefully people will see the necessity of investing,” Vilsack said in an interview.
From The Detroit News (Leonard N. Fleming):
The Minnesota-based company recently filed suit in Michigan Court of Claims against the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and its drinking water standards adopted last year. 3M called them “the result of a rushed and invalid regulatory process, scientifically flawed, and reliant on speculative and unquantified purported benefits to justify the costly” rules.
Nessel said the suit is a way for 3M officials to go after the limits for PFAS compounds in drinking water. 3M officials in their suit contend the cleanup efforts will cost millions of dollars in the first year and would continue to climb.
Michigan’s attorney general has sued 3M, along with other PFAS manufacturers, to recover clean up costs, damages to the environment and natural resource damages caused by PFAS contamination. State officials have contended that many of 3M’s products with PFAS ended up contaminating the environment that include land, drinking water and other natural resources.
“3M profited for years from its sale of PFAS products and concealed its evidence of adverse health impacts from state and federal regulators,” Nessel said in a statement. “It is no coincidence that this out-of-state company is resorting to attempts to rewrite our state’s standards put in place to protect Michiganders from PFAS in their drinking water.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):
Details of a proposed solar farm in western Pueblo County were discussed during a virtual public meeting Thursday. The Turkey Creek Solar Farm, if approved by Pueblo County Commissioners during the permitting process, will be built by 174 Power Global of Irvine, California, to supply solar power for Black Hills Energy. It will be located just north of U.S. Highway 50 one mile east of the Fremont/Pueblo County line. Approximately 1,200 to 1,400 acres will be used for the project, according to Ed Maddox, project development lead for 174 Power Global. The land will be leased from Gary Walker of Walker Ranches.
“We do consider both lease agreements and purchase options with land owners,” on projects like Turkey Creek, Maddox said. “In this particular case the land owner is a large local land owner who wants to continue to own and operate the ranch as it is, and leasing provides the best solution.” The permitting process is expected to take the remainder of the year with construction starting in 2022. “Over the 12- to 14-month construction period for Turkey Creek, we will have an average of about 300 workers during construction and that will vary from a minimum of about 150 to 450 or more workers during peak construction,” said Stephanie Lauer, environmental permitting manager for 174 Power Global. Once the solar farm begins operations in 2023, “We will have about three to five full-time workers who are responsible for daily maintenance of the facility and monitoring of all the systems,” Lauer said.
Additional local labor will be needed several times a year for vegetation mowing and washing of the panels. The solar panels will be aligned in rows running north to south and will be attached to a tracking system which allows the panels to track the sun from east to west as it moves. “They will be 10- to 14-feet high when they are tilted to their highest position,” Maddox said. When motorists are driving on U.S. 50 they will see portions of the solar farm, but the panels will not obstruct the view of the mountains, Maddox said.
Travelers will not be affected by glint or glare from the panels because of their dark grey color which will absorb light, not reflect it. Wildlife fencing will ensure pronghorn, elk and cattle will be able to access the underpass that allows animals to move under the highway.
The solar farm will generate enough electricity to power 46,000 homes each year, said Taylor Henderson, project developer for Out- shine Energy. Only a handful of questions came from the audience. One local landowner asked how the construction will impact traffic on Stone City Road. Lauer said she did not think the road will be used as workers will get to the site at two access points along U.S. 50.