I admit to being confused about many things, but this time it is about record low temperatures. I doubt many people spend much time wondering about such things, but once a weatherman, always a weatherman. The idea for this article was put into my head by a post on the blog, “WattsUpWithThat” by E. M. Smith. Consider the following.

Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

The coldest temperature ever seen in New England is -50°F, which has happened twice. A remote site in northern Maine recorded a minus 50°F reading on January 16, 2009, that tied the record set back in 1933 in Bloomfield, Vt. Also, on January 16, 2009, a new state low temperature record was apparently set in Illinois when a reading of -36°F was recorded in the town of Rochelle. However, the state climatologist determined that this record would not be accepted, even though the thermometer had been recalibrated just the day before, because this thermometer had not been recalibrated by the National Weather Service. What does that have to do with it? The point is, it was recalibrated and was working just fine.

Another questionable exclusion happened in Michigan in 1994. The Michigan State Climatologist Office reported the following: “Low temperatures on the morning of the 19th reached near all-time record low levels nearly statewide as readings of 20 to 40 below zero were quite common. Numerous daytime and monthly record lows were broken as well as numerous daytime record low maximum temperatures. The all-time record low for the state of Michigan was also challenged on January 19 with Amasa, Michigan coming in with a remarkably low temperature of -53°F surpassing the old record of -51°F. Unfortunately, this reading cannot become an official state record low since the thermometer site was too close to the observer’s house!” Say what?

Wouldn’t the thermometer have read even colder if it had been farther away from the heated house? This is an especially puzzling statement since temperature readings that are taken from thermometers mounted on the side of a brick building facing into the sun are considered official in other locations, such as this one in Urbana, Ohio. Why wasn’t the Michigan temperature accepted? Or the one in Illinois? Could it be because they represented all-time record low temperatures, which are not supposed to happen anymore due to increased greenhouse gases?

Here is the conundrum: on winter nights with no clouds, no wind and very little moisture in the air, why doesn’t the increased CO2 prevent temperatures from getting colder than they have in the past? If you remove all of the influences on the temperature, such as the sun, clouds, wind, moisture in the air, and an urban location, which was the case in all these instances, all that is left that could keep the temperature from getting colder than it ever has before is the supposed warming effect of more CO2 in the atmosphere.

But what happened when the increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was left acting on its own with no other influences? We recorded temperatures lower than ever before. Smith concluded: “And even just ONE clear, dry, cold night with CO2 doing all it can but resulting in a record low EVER for that location pretty much says there is not a thing of importance being done by CO2. CO2 is not the ‘driver’ of temperatures here, it isn’t even in the passenger seat…”

It’s not that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas. It’s that it is of no importance compared to other things that affect temperature, and when those things are out of the way, we get a very cold night even colder than the last time they were out of the way (i.e. the increase in CO2 had no observable impact). So CO2 may well be a greenhouse gas, but it just isn’t registering an effect. Sometimes the simplest observations turn out to be the most brilliant.

By the way, by the time you read this article, we may have just received our biggest snowfall of the winter and perhaps even for the month of February. I’ll have more on the storm next week. 

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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