It’s been an unusual summer, to say the least. Heat maps keep taking on a red-orange glow, with some veering into rare magenta territory. The Carr Fire, one of the most severe in California history, has burned down 1,000 homes and spun a fire tornado through the air.
“Over a decade or so, we’re going to have more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it,” California Governor Jerry Brown said last week. “All that is the ‘new normal’ that we will have to face.”
Why on earth is the word normal being thrown around to describe such extraordinary times?
The new normal is a catchy phrase, and one you’ve probably heard before — if not from Brown, then perhaps from the New York Times. In recent years, the cliche has shown up after disastrous wildfires, hurricanes, heatwaves, and drought.
While government officials and the media like to throw the phrase around, scientists kind of hate it.
“It sounds like we left the old normal, the old conditions, and arrived at a new normal, a new stasis,” Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at the University of Idaho, tells me. “Unfortunately, that’s not what our climate projections are telling us. They’re telling us that this is one step on a very long staircase that’s heading toward extreme conditions.”
In climate science, “normal” is a well-defined word: an average over a 30-year period. Thus, the use of normal does not describe our current period, in which we’re going to continue seeing things we’ve never seen, Kolden says.
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