Has the Temperature Climate of the United States Become More Extreme?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 8:15 AM
Laura E Stevens1,2, Kenneth Kunkel1,2, Russell S Vose2 and Richard W Knight1,2, (1)Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites - North Carolina (CICS-NC), Asheville, NC, United States, (2)National Climatic Data Center, Asheville, NC, United States
Extreme heat has affected parts of the United States during recent summers, particularly 2011 and 2012. Severe cold has also occurred in recent years. This has created a perception that the temperature climate of the U.S. has become more extreme. Is this the case? We address this question by computing probability distribution functions (PDFs) for each season and evaluating temporal changes for the 20th and early 21st centuries using a new gridded monthly temperature data set. We examine changes in the mean, width, and shape of the PDFs for seven U.S. regions, as defined in the third National Climate Assessment.

During the past 2-3 decades, there has been a shift toward more frequent very warm months, but this has been accompanied by a decrease in the occurrence of very cold months. Thus, overall we determine that the temperature climate of the U.S. has not become more extreme. The 1930s were an earlier period of frequent very warm months, but this was primarily a result of very warm daytime temperatures, while the occurrence of months with very high nighttime temperatures was not unusually large during that period.

There are important regional variations in these results. In particular, the shift to more frequent very warm months is not predominant in the southeast U.S. annually or in parts of the central U.S. in the summer. This lack of warming is a feature of daytime maximum temperature, not nighttime minimum temperature.