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Climate: Expect the unexpected

Katya Gordon

"Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get." We spoke these words frequently to reduce confusion.

"So, for us," my daughter Cedar explained to students and teachers in their classrooms, "we expect winters that are cold and snowy, summers that are warm with southwesterly winds and long periods of calm on the lake. Spring and fall are the seasons for gales."

Weather, on the other hand, is what we are seeing today: "Today, it could be sunny, or cloudy, or windy, or rainy, or cold, or warm."

On our month-long sailing trip around Lake Superior, which concluded June 3, here's what we expected:

Our expectations were based on previous experience — Mark has been sailing Lake Superior for over 30 years — and on long-term recordings of temperatures and ice from scientific studies and the stories of old-timers.

We expected possible ice-out conditions including fast ice or ice chunks around the lake. We expected predominantly east winds, often strong. We expected water temperatures in the 30s. We expected frequent fog, a few overnight frosts and air temperatures in the 40s and 50s.

Mark, for one, fully expected to wear long underwear throughout May and often intermittently into July.

That was what we expected. What did we get?

We got numerous reports of ice along the southern shore, though we saw only the smallest bits. We got one hard frost.

We got predominantly east winds, often very light. In mid-May, we had eight days in which the waves never exceeded 2 feet.

Water temperatures hovered around freezing in the open water and reached the mid-40s in the bays. Air temperatures rose into the 70s several times in northern Ontario. During that period, it rarely fell below 50 degrees. The mosquitoes came out on Wilson Island on May 28, and then disappeared a couple of days later. We walked around in shorts and T-shirts in May at the northern tip of Lake Superior.

During our highly unusual warm/calm spell, it took two nights of mosquitoes before we pulled out the screens in earnest, so certain were we that mosquitoes do not come out in May. Our bodies enjoyed the respite from the cold. We pulled off layers tentatively, over several days, never quite trusting it.

We took dips in the bay, swatted mosquitoes and abandoned the hot chocolate. But it felt eerie, and some of us had a hard time relaxing. It just didn't feel right. We hadn't yet earned the right to be warm! Such is the mood, often, when we experience first-hand our warming climate in northern regions.

It was a relief — though a brutal one — to come barreling into Grand Marais from Isle Royale during a roaring northeast wind, with winds over 20 knots, waves over 6 feet, an air temperature barely above 40 degrees, and all of our layers most emphatically needed.

What we experienced was simply weather. But when we compare it with the data that describes changes over the past century, it confirms a pattern of warming air and water temperatures, less ice cover and greater variability. So in one way, what we now "expect" with weather is the "unexpected." And we got that.

No longer can Mark confidently tell me the day, or even the month, that he will take off his long underwear.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.

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