University of Utah meteorology professor Jim Steenburgh, long a proponent of global warming and a member of the governor's Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on climate change, isn't surprised that the winter of 2007-08 here in Utah has been colder than normal, or that he's shoveled snow, like the rest of us, till he's ready to hire somebody else to do it. It comes as no great shock to him that this is the winter he ventured into the back country between the Cottonwood canyons and enjoyed "the greatest ski day of my life."
What does surprise him is that it took somebody from the media until the end of February to ask him about it.
That would be me.
"So professor," I said the other day in Steenburgh's office at the U., "What do you think about global warming now?"
He looked at me, a bemused look on his face, and said, "I can't believe that you're the first person who has asked me that question."
Of course it's natural to think global warming is a figment of some meteorologist's fantasy when Home Depot has been out of snowblowers since December and Parleys Canyon has spent the winter doubling as a luge run.
"But what you feel in your back yard isn't necessarily what's happening around the world," Steenburgh patiently answered as he pulled out a map of the Earth with blue and red graphics on the continents.
"It's true we're having a relatively cold winter in the western U.S.," he said, pointing to blue graphics from California to the Mississippi.
Then he pointed to a sea of red on the other side of the nation and the world.
"At the same time, the eastern U.S. has been a little above average, and Europe and North Asia are well above average," he explained. "I have a friend in Finland who is bemoaning the fact that they are getting no winter."
He continued, "I don't know of any scientist any more who denies the planet's temperature is going up, and the vast majority believe man is contributing to that. It's not unusual to have a cold winter. But the chances are getting smaller."
This winter in Utah, we've been lucky. December was the 37th coldest out of the 114 that have been recorded since 1895 and January was the 40th coldest.
But on a world scale, January 2008 was the 31st warmest on record. Only 30 Januarys since 1895 have been warmer.
Locally and globally, Steenburgh noted, there is no mistaking the warming trend. For every cold month there are more than enough warm months to keep raising the average. Despite the cold December that closed out 2007 here in Utah, for example, for the whole of 2007, Utah's average temperature of 50.3 degrees Fahrenheit still ranked it as the seventh warmest.
"We know the trend is not good," said Steenburgh.
As he talked, I noticed a screensaver on his computer. It shows a bright blue sky, crisp green fir trees, and a skier carving his way down a snow-covered mountain through chest-high powder.
"Your best ski day ever?" I guessed.
Steenburgh turned. "Yeah," he said. "That was an unbelievable day. This has been a fun winter."Just because it's coming, doesn't mean it's here.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.