Dec. 18 was another terrifyingly mild day in New York City. At noon, the temperature in Central Park was a toasty 58 degrees. Somewhere near the North Pole, another giant hunk of ice may have been melting off into a swelling Arctic Ocean, but over on 10th Avenue, the Channel 2 afternoon news team was busy wrapping up a package on holiday hassles.
After a few seconds of cheerful nattering about long lines at the post office, they kicked it over to meteorologist Audrey Puente for her forecast.
“If the line extends out the door, no problem!” said a glowing Ms. Puente. “Because the temperatures will be nice and comfortable for everyone waiting on those lines, whether it’s at a store or the post office today!”
Global warming may be turning the earth into a shriveled, flooded, lifeless
swamp faster than Al Gore can jet around the country trying to stop it. But then also, the sun is shining; the skies are clear. There are no blizzards, no rain and no snow for the TV weather folk to report, no nor’easters coming up the coast and no southwesterly winds carrying accumulation from the Great Lakes. Manhattan has all the balmy imperviousness of Venice before the plague. The unpredictable weather patterns are yet to come.
On Dec. 11, the National Center for Atmospheric Research released findings showing that because of greenhouse emissions, the retreat of Arctic sea ice is increasing so rapidly that there won’t be any ice left in the Arctic Ocean in the summertime in 2040. On Dec. 19, government and private researchers projected the heat spell will last well into January. Someone named Mike Palmerino of the private firm DTN Meteorologix pronounced the chances of anyone in the Northeast enjoying a white Christmas “very unlikely.”
So put away those parkas and go for a stroll, New York! The only thing better than last-minute Christmas shopping is doing so on the eve of the apocalypse.
“In terms of people being out and about, shopping for the holidays, looking at the tree in Rockefeller Center, this is great weather, especially for tourists,” said Janice Huff, a meteorologist for WNBC, who called Monday evening after delivering another sunny forecast for the 6 p.m. local news. “I know some people are wondering, ‘Oh, is the world coming to an end?’ I say, ‘Enjoy it while you got it.’”
That this has been the warmest year on record since 1881 did not particularly trouble Ms. Huff or many of her fellow weather people. The current bout of freakish weather isn’t inexplicable, she said, so it’s not keeping her in night sweats. The “very mild pattern” is a mix of El Niño churning up the Pacific, bringing heavy, wet weather to the West Coast and record-breaking temperatures (71 degrees on Dec. 18 in Atlantic City!) to our neck of the woods.
“What’s sad about 60 degrees in December?” she asked. “There’s nothing dangerous about it. There’s nothing sad about it. It puts smiles on people’s faces. Everyone’s been thanking me—not that I had anything to do with it.”
Ms. Huff is part of a small but influential cabal of TV weather people in New York, which member Dave Price, of the CBS Early Show, calls “a little fraternity.” There has been very minimal consternation within the fraternity about the day-to-day reality of this winter’s weather. Most of the time, he said, “we’re the happiest guys on the air.” Still, when they run into each other at cocktail parties or upscale midtown lunch spots, the conversation now turns, on occasion, to the current climactic oddities.
“All I can tell you is, we know as a group—Al [Roker] and Sam [Champion] and myself—that right now we are avoiding the ice rinks, anyone in a vehicle with a snowplow attachment, and anyone with a ski rack on their car,” said Mr. Price, who is also Bob Barker’s probable successor as host of The Price is Right. “Right now we are not popular with those groups.”
Mr. Price, who is accustomed to being yelled at on the street, said the heckling has gotten worse lately. “They say, “Weatherman, what’s the deal?’” he said. “I must hear that 40 times a day. I usually yell back, ‘If you have a few hours, I’ll go get a chalkboard and we can talk about global warming.’”
“Personally, I’m a warm-weather person,” said Roger Clark, the morning feature reporter for NY1. Mr. Clark has been chronicling the earth’s steady burn in an occasional series of on-the-street reports. The project recently took him to a Christmas-tree stand in Chelsea operated by a woman in town from Alaska.
“It’s almost like a tropical vacation for her here,” he said. Mr. Clark spent the morning asking passers-by if it’s “hard to get into the holiday groove when it’s not cold?” The vast majority said no. “Most of the people—all of them, really—were like, ‘Eh, it’s not really a big deal.’”
The icy voice of reason in this July-in-December frenzy is Sam Champion, the Good Morning America weather anchor/meteorologist/walking, talking Ken doll. On the urging of his bosses at ABC News, Mr. Champion ventured to Jökulsárlón, Iceland, in November to show firsthand the devastating pace of global warming.
“We’re not really concentrating on the ‘Gee, isn’t it funny that we can dance in the 60-degree temperatures in Times Square?’ angle to this story,” he said.
Mr. Champion recently focused his laser-like meteorological gravitas on the problem from atop a 7,000-foot-tall (for now!) glacier, the highest peak in Jökulsárlón and a destination that ABC deemed the third modern wonder of the world. From there, on Nov. 13—timed to coincide with the United Nations’ concurrent Climate Change Conference in Nairobi—he interviewed locals who’ve seen the glacier melt over the course of their lifetimes. He told viewers that Arctic ice has been shrinking 8 percent a year for the last 25 years. Diane Sawyer, wearing long johns and teleporting in from ABC studios in Washington, wondered if he was freezing.
“Oh, no,” he told her. Later in the report, he cut to tape of Waleed Abdalati, a scientist from NASA, who said, “If I give you [an estimate] on a scale of one to 10, the attention we should pay would certainly be a 10.”
But until Dan Rather laces up a pair of crampons and straps himself to an ice floe, that 10 seems unlikely. Weather is a happy story, up there in the newscast with local school kids visiting nursing homes during the holidays and the ups and downs of college sports. The tone of the coverage will remain largely speculative, the substance largely substance-free.
“What tends to happen with meteorologists is that we tend to like to have something to talk about,” said Ms. Huff. “December can be exciting for us, in that way.” Typically, New York doesn’t get heavy snowfall until January or February, she said, but still—there’s the anticipation.
“I’ve been too busy forecasting to enjoy the fun of it,” Mr. Price said.