How Was This Winter’s Cold Perceived?

Read the full story in Climate Central.

From -50°F wind chills in the Midwest to exceptional snow in the Southwest, it’s been a winter of extremes. But in historical context, this winter was not exceptionally cold; nationally, December and January temperatures were warmer than the 20th century average. So why did people notice the cold so much? A recent study may have the answer, showing that our sense of “normal” is limited to the last several years.

Published on Monday in PNAS, the study finds that people largely compare temperature to the most recent two to eight years. The research team — led by Dr. Frances C. Moore of the University of California, Davis — studied these perceptions by analyzing billions of U.S. Twitter posts. People do tweet about unusual temperatures, but more so if those temperatures are unusual relative to recent years. Even when current temperatures far exceed the long-term average — as has often been the case with climate change — fewer people take notice if the temperatures are similar to last year’s. According to the authors’ op-ed piece, we may resemble the fabled frog that cannot recognize that the pot it’s in is slowly boiling.

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