Where’s winter gone?

By Mike Johnson

I hate to say it, but it’s too warm. We still have tomatoes ripening in our sheltered garden. Tomatoes at the end of May? And the mozzies haven’t died off yet. Still mozzying around at the end of May? And we’ve hardly had to light a fire either. Walk down Queen Street and you’ll see some dressed for the winter that hasn’t arrived, and others, more sensibly, still in their summer outfits.

The winter solstice, our shortest day, is coming up on the 21st of June, less than a month away. Where’s winter gone?

I’m all too aware of limitations of anecdotal experience, but as global warming cranks up, we all become witnesses whether we like it or not. Anecdotal experience piles up.

In this case, my subjective impressions are backed up by the data. This April tied with 2010 as, globally, the hottest April ever recorded – which is going back more than a hundred years. That’s a global average of course, conditions will vary locally, but here in the north of New Zealand winter temperatures have barely dropped below a daily high of 20 degrees Celsius. I think we’ve had a chilly 17.

As I write there is rumour of a cold snap on the way.  How crazy to be holding out for a cold blast! Waiheke, however, needs its cold winter snaps, a frost or two in the sheltered places, a few days sustained rain instead of these squally thunderstorms. Never mind, I tell myself. The coldest weather always comes after the shortest day.

So here is the paradox, the difficulty: who in their right mind is going to object to such a mild winter, even if we are a bit too embarrassed to keep calling it an ‘Indian Summer’? The pastoral farmers are not complaining In the north and Waikato, rain combined with mild temperatures have kicked along grass growth.

And here’s the curious and rather scary thing. As with pain, we forget. We forget what cold is. The body adjusts and forgets too. It’s up the mind to remind us of the reality of the situation – and our powers of observation. I know from my research that monthly average temperatures have not dipped below the twentieth century average since September 1985. More than time enough for the body to forget, for collective memory to fade.

Then when we do get a cold blast we act as if our throats had been cut, not that this a norm we have forgotten.

The seductive argument that a little bit of warming is nice raises its head. On a warm winters day I’ve even heard people exclaim, ‘Roll on global warming!’

It’s not nice, with knock-on effects that are multiple and often unforeseeable. Disaster may be next year for us but it’s now in many parts of the world.

It won’t be so nice when, for example, dengue bearing mozzies move in (apparently that can happen when it doesn’t get cold enough to kill them off over the winter). No amount of ‘bio-security’ can hold back the effects of rising temperatures on species distribution. In the same week the April figures came out we learned that catastrophic collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun.

We kicked the process into motion and now we can’t stop it. Sea level rises beyond that predicted by the IPCC, who can’t predict the timing of such events and leave them out of their calculations, is now inevitable, unstoppable.

I’m off down the garden now to pick what I expect to be the last of those tomatoes. Got some insect repellent. With news of the heralded El Nino Weather condition on the way, with likelihood of soaring temperatures, I’m starting to wonder if 2014 won’t be remembered as the year the winter failed.