ST. LOUIS -- The weather feels weird.
You might think this as you hide in the basement during yet another severe storm. Or when you cranked the A/C back in March and put away that barely-used snow shovel.
Add to this the past year's bounty of headline-grabbing weather: Massive killer tornados in Joplin, Mo.! And Birmingham, Ala.! Record flooding on the Mississippi River! Dustbowl-esque drought in Texas! Hurricane Irene!
The feel that extreme weather is getting less extreme -- that the unusual is becoming more common, that Mother Nature has lost her steady gait -- seems to be growing. After all, U.S. weather records have been toppling like tulips in a hail storm, more than 3,000 last year alone, including one big one, what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls $1 billion weather disasters. These are events that, since 1980, have caused an inflation-adjusted $1 billion in damages. In a typical year, the United States sees three or four of them. In 2011, there were 14, a record.
"The weather is definitely weird," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for the website Weather Underground. He's seen extreme events in the last two years that he'd never seen before in a 30-year career. "The climate is certainly much different today than when I was growing up."
Global warming is partly to blame, inducing something akin to 'roid rage in the earth's atmosphere.
Doug Kluck, NOAA's climate service director for a 14-state region, said it is tougher to tell if the weather has taken a permanent turn for the weird. "There is not any firm evidence of more extreme events now than in the past."
Kluck said people naturally tend to fixate on recent events. Missouri, in particular, has had a rough run of harsh weather. And looking at that, Kluck said, "it does seem like there's a lot more (weather) volatility."
Consider what's happened with tornadoes, those familiar burdens of the Midwest. The number of weak twisters has grown dramatically since 1950, a NOAA study found. That could just be a consequence of more people out there to see them. Because, at the same time, the number of severe tornadoes has not changed.
The trend lines for the number and cost of U.S. natural disasters have steadily risen since 1980, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group. Losses from thunderstorms have grown fivefold. Losses from winter storms have doubled since the early 1980s.
NOAA research has found the United States has seen more unusually hot days and fewer unusually cold days over the past half-century. The frost-free season is longer. Heavy downpours are more common in much of the country.
So it certainly seems like something is going on.
Last year, the Nobel-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that the world needed to prepare for "unprecedented extreme weather" due to global warming.
NOAA has not gone that far, yet, Kluck said. "Human-caused climate change is a fact," warming the earth and tipping the balance in how climate reacts, he said. Models predict that the warmer air will add fuel to the power of extreme events.
People are already connecting the dots.
A poll released last month showed a large majority of Americans believe global warming worsened the effects of several extreme weather events in 2011, including the record hot summer, mild winter, Mississippi River floods and Texas drought. More than 80 percent of people said they had personally experienced an extreme weather event in the past year. And by a better than 2-to-1 margin Americans said the weather has been getting worse over the last several years, not better, according to the survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Dave Murray, longtime meteorologist at KTVI-TV in St. Louis, said he doesn't believe the weather is overall worse.
"I'm more of a cycle person with how weather works," Murray said.
He doesn't think man-made global warming is powerful enough to affect the planet's climate. He is doubtful of long-range, global-warming computer models. "We have enough trouble with five days out," he said. He even expects the climate will cool over the next five years -- just part of the cycle.
Murray said extreme weather's star turn is part of the trend of people being bombarded by weather news, from forecasts on phones to 24-hour cable weather channels and weather websites to Youtube videos of terrible tornadoes and mammoth hail stones. Murray, too, plays into the interest in weather. And he and his wife, Janis, just came out with a children's book about thunderstorms called "Graham and Jet Get Wet."
Murray does not think extreme weather is here to stay.
But when it occurs, people will be watching him, ever more it seems, from the television in the basement.
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