It’s strange to write about record-breaking heat when Pennsylvania, like most of the nation, is experiencing a brutal cold snap.
Yet last year’s historic temperatures surprised even scientists, according to the most recent analysis from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). The average temperature of the Earth’s land and water was 2.12 degrees warmer than the 20th-century, making it the hottest year in NOAA’s 1850-2023 climate record.
“After seeing the 2023 climate analysis, I have to pause and say that the findings are astounding,” NOAA Chief Scientist Dr. Sarah Kapnick said in a news release. “Not only was 2023 the warmest year in NOAA’s 174-year climate record — it was the warmest by far.”
The warming trend also applies to winter months. December of 2023 was the warmest December on record, 2.57 degrees above the 20th-century average. In Pennsylvania, warming winters are causing frustration for the people who enjoy activities like skiing and ice fishing as well as the businesses that depend on winter recreation.
Video source: https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/5190/
A rise in greenhouse gas emissions was the primary driver of last year’s warming trend, with 10 of the warmest years since 1850 all occurring in the past decade.
“We will continue to see records broken and extreme events grow until emissions go to zero,” Kapnick said.
Pennsylvania bears the double-edged position of being the nation’s largest exporter of electricity, making it a leader both in energy and in emissions — responsible for nearly 1% of global emissions. While a staggering figure, it also means that our move toward cleaner energy makes an outsized step toward a zero-carbon economy.
In 2021, PEC published a Climate and Energy Policy Recommendations roadmap, an update from a 2019 report that outlines how the Commonwealth should accelerate the shift toward a ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions profile.
Among our recommendations are reforming the current Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS) into a Clean Energy Standard (CES) and advancing measures to facilitate clean energy development.
A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly would expand the AEPS, which hasn’t been updated since 2004. H.B. 1467 would require the state to derive 30% of its energy from renewable sources, upping the current standard of 8%.
We’re also urging the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to act fast on new methane rules, which would reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The new rules are of particular importance in a state like Pennsylvania, the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country and home to an extraordinary number of older and less managed wells.
These and other strategies would greatly benefit Pennsylvania, which is already feeling the consequences of climate change.
Effects on Winter Recreation
North American had its warmest December on record. In Pittsburgh, the average winter temperature has risen 4.4 degrees since 1970, according to data compiled by Climate Central, an independent nonprofit comprised of leading scientists and journalists. In Philadelphia, the average is 5.5 degrees warmer. Such a trend is making winter recreation difficult.
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources maintains the State Parks Winter Report. It offers information on the conditions like snow and ice depth, updated weekly, and the activities available at parks across the state.
According to the report, ice thickness in many parks aren’t safe for activities like ice fishing or snowmobiling. DCNR advises the public to make sure ice is at least 4” thick for a single person, 6” thick for ice boating, and 7” thick for a small group.
Snow has also been scarce. Until this recent cold snap, it was difficult or impossible for ski areas to make snow, a process they’ve come to rely on to buttress natural snowfall.
Boyce Park in Allegheny County opened briefly in December, only to close due to a lack of snow and unfavorable conditions for snow making. The slopes reopened on Jan. 5 for skiing and snowboarding. The recent chill comes just in time for the ski area to prepare for SnowFest, scheduled for Feb. 3. As of this writing, snow tubing at Boyce Park remains closed.
In Lebanon County, Iron Valley Tubing struggled to stay open last year and has remained closed this year. To make snow, they need sustained cold, dry conditions, which have been harder and harder to come by.
“When we get the shorter cold snaps, it doesn’t give us enough time to have the ground frozen, first of all,” Brooke Maurer, a marketing coordinator with Byler Holdings, which operates the tubing hill, told Fox43. “And then even if the ground does get to freeze, we still need longer cold snaps to make the snow, so it’s just not ideal.”
Iron Valley Tubing recently announced it will open for the season on Jan. 20.
If the World Is Warming, Why Is It Freezing Right Now?
Climate change doesn’t mean winters will stop being cold. As the National Weather Service makes clear, the variation in seasons is due to the Earth spinning on its axis around the sun. For the northern hemisphere, winter occurs when the sun shines indirectly on this part of the world (and the southern hemisphere, which is tilted toward the sun, experience summer).
This latest, headline-making cold snap is due to the Arctic polar vortex — a band of strong winds that form in the stratosphere over the North Pole every winter, capping a pool of very cold air.
In a typical year, that cold air remains isolated to the Arctic, but sometimes the polar vortex weakens or gets “disrupted,” causing the vortex to get wavy and sending cold air to mid-latitudes.
NOAA has an entire blog dedicated to providing updates on the polar vortex. Starting back in December, scientists were predicting a weak polar vortex in mid-January, which caused temperatures to plummet by more than 25 degrees in parts of the country this week.
Some climate models predict that global warming trends will lead to more severe winter weather outbreaks due to more frequent disruptions.
“Disruptions of the polar vortex occur when the vortex is bumped from below by large-scale atmospheric waves flowing around the troposphere,” according to NOAA stratosphere expert Amy Butler. “The waves are always there, but anything that changes their strength or location—including changes in surface temperature and pressure that result from sea ice loss—can potentially influence the polar vortex. So the idea would be that even though you have an overall warming trend, you might see an increase in the severity of individual winter weather events in some locations.”
Scientists haven’t determined for certain whether a warmer planet correlates to a weaker polar vortex, due in large part to a lack of reliable data on the stratosphere prior to 1950. There’s also a lack of consensus as to how variables like sea ice loss and other climate change processes will affect the polar vortex.
The current cold snap shouldn’t last long, scientists say, and the large-scale trends point to warmer, shorter winters overall.
That warming trend likely will continue throughout this year. According to NOAA scientists, there is a “one-in-three chance that 2024 will be warmer than 2023, and a 99% chance that 2024 will rank among the top five warmest years.”
Limiting the extent of global warming, along with its consequences for ecosystems and communities, centers around reducing emissions.
PEC advocates for a 100% zero-carbon electricity sector by 2050. To achieve that, it is essential to pass better rules and tighter emission controls. Adopting a Clean Emissions Standard (CES) would require electric utilities and competitive suppliers to make non-emitting energy.
Under the current, twenty-year-old Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, (AEPS), Pennsylvania must derive at least 8% of its electricity from “Tier 1” sources, including solar (which has a minimum 0.5% requirement), wind, small-scale hydro, geothermal, biomass, biogas, coal mine methane, and fuel cells. An additional 10% must come from “Tier II” resources, including waste coal, distributed generation, demand-side management, municipal solid waste, manufacturing byproducts, and integrated gasification combined cycle coal facilities.
While the current standards helped to reduce emissions, they’ve hit their ceiling, underscoring the need for more robust statutes.
A CES allows flexibility in what kind of energy sources qualify, such as existing and advanced nuclear plants, emerging technologies such as hydrogen, and fossil-fuel-fired plants with carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
PEC has developed a Fact Sheet to help explain the Clean Energy Standard concept. Stricter standards would not only reduce gas emissions, improve air quality, and strengthen energy security, Pennsylvania’s adoption of a CES would drive vital investment and job growth in the state.
To learn more about our path to Pennsylvania’s clean-energy future, visit https://pecpa.org/air/.