Between 1956 and 2012, there have been a mean of 30 days a year on which the temperature in Coden, Ala. — just west of Mobile Bay — dropped below freezing. As you might expect, those days were mostly in the winter: 10 in January, on average, with six in February and eight in December. Over the past 365 days in nearby Fairhope, the temperature has dropped below 32 degrees on three days: Jan. 7, 8 and 9.
It’s currently 88 degrees in Coden, but the Weather Underground reports that it feels like 118. In the past 24 hours, a slew of locations in the Deep South stretching into southern Alabama have tied or broken temperature records.
It’s been autumn for three weeks.
Granted, this is Alabama, which doesn’t exactly turn into a winter wonderland. But we focus on Coden because of an interesting comment from a resident of the town that was reported by a local NPR affiliate this week.
“If we don’t have a winter this winter, we’re going to be living in the tropics because the water is what controls it all,” Paul Nelson, a retired shrimper, told NPR’s Debbie Elliott. “So we got to sit around and think, yeah, what is going on?”
That’s an interesting idea: A winter without a winter. Nelson went on to say that he accepts the scientific consensus that the world is getting warmer — which makes sense given that some of the most immediate effects of climate change are being felt in the region where he lives.
Climate Central reported this year that, as with other bodies of water around the world, the Gulf of Mexico has been getting warmer and seeing higher high temperatures.
Warmer water means higher seas, because warmer water occupies more volume. The western Gulf Coast has seen some of the biggest sea-level increases of the past 50 years, with levels near Alabama increasing 4 to 6 inches.
Those higher seas mean quicker flooding during heavy rains — like the region saw during Hurricane Nate.
To Nelson’s point about winter, though, climate change suggests that his worry about the season vanishing may be warranted.
We don’t know exactly how climate change will manifest itself, and it’s tricky to attribute specific weather events to climate change. We don’t even know the likely range of what will happen with climate change, because we don’t know how much, if anything, people will do to make the warming worse. Climate scientists generally model predictions based on a few scenarios, including ones in which people significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and ones in which those emissions go unchecked.
The government released a tool in 2014 that aimed to help Americans understand what the effects of climate change would be near them. Called the Climate Resilience Toolkit, it allows people to plug in their location and see what climate models predict will happen near them.
Let’s plug in Coden. We see, first of all, that winters will be warmer — as will the other seasons. (We took the three periods for which these projections were estimated and animated them.)
The blue blocks are the estimated range and the blue lines are the median projection. By the 2060 to 2090 period, the temperature near Coden is estimated to be about 4 degrees Fahrenheit higher during the winter.
The blue color indicates that these estimates are under the low-emissions scenario — in other words, if we take significant steps to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. Under the higher-emission projections, the shift is more dramatic.
At the beginning of this article, we looked at the number of days that were below freezing. Under the low-emissions projection, the number of cold days near Coden will continue to drop between now and 2100.
Under the high-emissions scenario, the shift is again stark. Years with almost no freezing days will be the norm.
Winter will fade — but summer will become the norm. The number of days with temperatures above 95 degrees will soar under the high-emissions scenario.
In June, the New York Times pointed out that this increase in the number of warm days will not simply mean more time spent in air conditioning. That increase is expected to have a significant effect on the regional economy, with Coden’s county seeing a decrease in its GDP of between 10 to 15 percent by the end of the century.
Paul Nelson’s concern about becoming the tropics is warranted, assuming that climate change continues unchecked. Climate Central published a tool this year showing how unchecked emissions might change the temperatures of cities around the world. Philadelphia could be as warm during the summer as Juarez, Mexico, is today. Houston — the closest city to Coden on the tool — could be as warm as Saudi Arabia.
The winters would presumably be more similar to those in the Middle East, too.