State-by-State Temperature Map: Red-Hot Out West

January to May were the hottest on record in the nation's most economically important state. 
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NOAA

Here's the thing about a warming climate: the march upward is not going to be smooth nor is it going to be even. 

Take a look at this year's temperatures by state. California was five degrees—five degrees!—warmer than its 20th-century average, whereas Michiganders and Mississippians were experiencing near record cold. 

That is to say, climate change doesn't mean it will never be cold again, but it does mean that when a heat wave hits, it is more likely to be more extreme than the ones preceding it. "It is very likely that heat waves will be more intense, more frequent and longer lasting in a future warmer climate," the Intergovernmetnal Panel on Climate Change wrote back in 2007.

Any individual weather event or pattern can't be blamed directly on the atmospheric changes caused by burning fossil fuels. But if we ask the question a little bit differently, we can discern a climate trend: how likely is it that California would be experiencing the kind of heat we've seen without the human influence on the climate? It might happen, but it'd be very, very unlikely. 

Take San Francisco, not exactly a place known for being hot. The California Energy Commission's Cal-Adapt predicts that by the end of this century there will be 126 extreme heat days per year in the city.

Cal-Adapt program defines an "extreme heat day" as those above very close to the maximum temperature (above the 98th percentile) recorded for a location between 1961-1990. I think we can safely classify these days as the ones where you might say, "Man, this is like the hottest day of the year." So, take that in: a third of the year will be hotter than the hottest days between 1961 and 1990. 

The only good thing about the spikiness of the changing climate is that during the peaks we can get a sense of what the new normal will be. And maybe that will spur us to change the climate path that we're on towards ever hotter temperatures. Here's the number of extreme heat days we might expect in the coming decades:

 

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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