Field Note: Like a Heat Wave

When we talk about climate change, one of the first things we need to clarify is the difference between climate and weather. The term “climate” refers to the longer-term trends in atmospheric conditions that characterize a particular region. The term “weather” refers to what’s happening at the moment: the day-to-day atmospheric conditions in a particular location. For example, I can guess that right now, in San Diego, the weather is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), and there is no rain. That description of the weather fits right into the climactic norms for San Diego in April. Right now, the weather at our field site on the North Slope of Alaska (see previous post, The Science of Shoveling Snow) is about -11.2 degrees Fahrenheit (-24 degrees Celsius), with light winds out of the northeast and no precipitation.

Although 11 degrees below zero is considered cold by most standards, the folks who live and work up here keep referring to the current weather as a “heat wave.” Everyone smiles when they say it (because it’s still really, really cold), but there is irony in this comment: people wonder how this current warm weather fits into any larger climate patterns that may be developing. I can say with confidence that it’s too early to say.

Even on this balmy -11 degree day, our team dons about five layers of fleece and Capilene, balaclavas, gloves with insulated mittens over them, and Canada Goose parkas (generously supplied by our partner, Polar Bears International). We will all pack extra layers in our daypacks (in case this heat wave breaks) and head out for the day. We will be checking the weather at regular intervals throughout the day, tracking the changes and adjusting our layers accordingly. More importantly, these data will help us interpret the data from the recordings we are taking in “our” polar dens, since air temperature, pressure, and humidity all impact how sound travels through the air.

Stay tuned: We’ll let you know if our current “heat wave” continues…

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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