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New analysis finds parts of the U.S. have already warmed close to critical 2-degree level

For years, scientists have warned that we need to stop the planet from warming an additional two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic problems. But a new analysis by The Washington Post finds many major areas across the U.S. have already reached that mark. The Post’s Chris Mooney joins Amna Nawaz to discuss why some parts of the country are affected more than others.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, a second environmental story on a much larger scale. Scientists have warned frequently that we need to stop the planet from warming an additional two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid catastrophic problems.

    A new analysis of temperature data by "The Washington Post" finds many major areas across the United States have reached or are already nearing that two-degree mark. It also found significant variations across the country.

    Chris Mooney from "The Washington Post" is here to lay out how some parts of the U.S. are being impacted more than others.

    Chris, welcome to the "NewsHour".

  • Chris Mooney:

    Thank you. Great to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, it's a sweeping analysis, looking across decades and decades of data. Tell me how you came to know what you know.

  • Chris Mooney:

    We set out to just look at some hints that I'd seen in scientific studies and other places about some parts to have the globe warming much faster than others, and there being some impacts, strange or dramatic, in these places. And we said, can we, you know, can we look at this more widely? And, sure enough, we can. NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has a great complete data set for the United States down to the county level back to 1895, all the way through.

    So, that's what we looked ad at and sure enough there are hot spots across the Lower 48 states. Alaska is another story. It's actually warming even more, but across the Lower 48, there are some dramatic areas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK. Before we get to Alaska, let's look at that separately. But what did you find across the Lower 48? Are there patterns?

  • Chris Mooney:

    Yes. So, one to have the most striking patterns is the northern border of the country, from roughly Montana, all the way to Maine is, you know, repeatedly high levels of warming compared to what's below it. And if you were to look at Canada, you would see that continuing.

    So, it's something about northern land areas are warming faster. We think this has something to do, probably, with the winter season and with snow melting faster than bare grounds exposed, and absorbing more solar radiation. This is a process that scientists think will play out on climate change. And given what we're seeing this pattern having to do with the north, we suspect that's what it is. There are some other hot spots as well but that's one of the biggest patterns.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What is it that you're actually seeing on the ground? I mean, temperature data is one thing, but what does that 1 or 2 degrees Celsius change mean on the ground?

  • Chris Mooney:

    We look at New Jersey the most closely, because New Jersey is about 1.9 Celsius and so, Rhode Island is actually 2. It's the fastest warming in Lower 48, New Jersey second.

    We went to a lake in New Jersey, Lake Hopatcong, and it's really kind of a great way to tell the story because, 100 years ago, this was sort of this winter wonderland where people would — they would ice skate, they would ice fish, they had giant winter carnivals and skaters and ice boats, ice sailing. Plus, it was an ice factory and they chopped up the ice, there was so much of it, to ship it to New York because there were no refrigerators, so they would use the ice to keep things cold for large numbers of people.

    And now, the lake is — it's very hard to even hold ice fishing contests anymore. The lake is overgrowing with weeds that are being sort of helped along by the warmer temperatures and it just had a dangerous algae bloom which also occurs more frequently when temperature rise. So, it's a giant change that's happened.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a giant change you're seeing that's clear when you look at numbers, right, over 100-plus years.

  • Chris Mooney:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But what about people on the ground? Have they been noticing a change, too?

  • Chris Mooney:

    Oh, absolutely. And so, you just go to Lake Hopatcong, and you say, what happened? They say, we don't have those winters anymore. You know, we cannot do the pastimes, the ice fishing. That's just not — it's not something that's very easy to do.

    Some years, they still can do it because weather varies a great deal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Uh-huh.

  • Chris Mooney:

    But across New Jersey, winters change the fastest and you see all the effects related to winter. So, one of the things that happens is, you know, you get different growths of weeds in the lake, you get pests that used to die because the winter was too cold for them. They now come up and visit new places.

    And, so, you have the pine barrens of New Jersey is infested southern pine beetle, which is destroying pine trees. It's not clear how they will stop that from occurring. And so, that's very destructive. You have ticks moving — this is a phenomenon that's occurring throughout the Northeast. And, you know, a lot of agriculture pests are on the move. So, a lot of big changes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, across all of these hot spots, you mentioned — Alaska stands out to you. It's been warming faster than any other part?

  • Chris Mooney:

    Sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What are you seeing there?

  • Chris Mooney:

    It's the Arctic, right? The Arctic is in a class of its own.

    What we — what people are surprised to learn is it's actually in the Lower 48. We sort of knew the Arctic of Alaska is 2.2 Celsius, it's an average. It's what we found based on interviewing experts about Alaska.

    But there's parts of Alaska like the North Slope that are way, way above that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also note in your article that global warming does not apply itself evenly, right, not across the globe. Certainly not in the U.S. So, are there parts of America that basically don't feel this at all?

  • Chris Mooney:

    Yes, the South stands out as not having warmed in the 120-year period at all and even in Mississippi and Alabama, some slight cooling. It's really surprising. It's a complicated story that has to do with air pollution in the middle of the century and maybe some natural variability of the climate.

    And then they are actually warming the last 50 years but that gets outweighed by the prior part of the period. So, they end up with nothing. So, it's a variable picture.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, just within this one country, right, there's two very different stories when it comes to how people are experiencing climate change, global warming. How do you think that affects how we have a national conversation about this?

  • Chris Mooney:

    I mean, I — it is — it is difficult because it will affect people's perceptions in a lot of different ways. On the other hand, what we found is that, you know, because there are 71 counties that are above 2C and some are very populated, we've got 10 percent of the population in those counties.

    So, it's a national story. The impacts are going to be playing out in a lot of regions. We've got Rocky Mountain Region. We've got Southern California. We've got this whole northern stretch.

    It affects a lot of different regions, just not evenly. So I think that it is the United States as a whole that needs to be paying attention to it, not just some parts.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But a fascinating report. It's stunning in how sweeping it is. It's available at "The Washington Post" right now.

    Chris Mooney, thank you so much for being here.

  • Chris Mooney:

    Great to be with you.

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