Basking in the Winter Warmth
Why Higher Temperatures are Better

Thomas Gale Moore
Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford University

Last year was by all standards the warmest yet recorded. During the Little Climatic Optimum of 800 to 1000 years ago, there were probably years that were hotter, but thermometers and satellites needed to verify the torrid readings were centuries in the future. In 1998, for once, ground-based readings and satellite measurements agreed that most places were warm and for most of the year. A large portion of the globe recorded those higher than normal readings. In the United States, all sections of the country, with the exception of the West, enjoyed higher than usual temperatures, often records for the year (Table 1). Relative to normal, the Northeast, the East North Central, and the Central regions of the United States recorded the warmest weather. People differ in their taste for sunny, warm days, but most of us evidently appreciated the absence of winter freezes. In response to the 1997-98 El Niño-spawned weather, newspapers and magazines published a spate of articles describing the many benefits and downright pleasure that many found with the lack of a "real" winter. Interestingly, a warmth similar to 1998’s occurred in Great Britain in 1995, and was the sub ject of a recently released British study. Here, we compare how people fared on each side of the Atlantic during these exceptional periods.

This Side of the Atlantic

Taxes

The New York Times reported February 27, 1998, that the warmth had been a blessing for road-plowing budgets, had significantly reduced heart attacks from shoveling snow, and had improved commuter train service by virtually eliminating delays. Public works chiefs were cheering their virtually untouched bank accounts. Snow removal budgets and salt for the highways remained unused. During the "winter" of 1998, Greenburgh, New York, spent only $45,000 of its budgeted $325,000 for clearing the roads. With deliveries of oil down 20 percent, homeowners enjoyed significant savings on their heating bills.

Table 1

Average Temperatures by Region and Nationally

REGION

Normal

1996

1997

1998

NORTHEAST

46.1

46.0

45.8

49.3

EAST NORTH CENTRAL

43.5

41.5

43.4

47.7

CENTRAL

53.2

52.2

52.6

56.3

SOUTHEAST

62.4

61.9

62.4

64.7

WEST NORTH CENTRAL

43.3

41.4

43.8

45.6

SOUTH

62.0

62.3

61.5

64.5

SOUTHWEST

51.8

53.8

52.3

52.8

NORTHWEST

46.7

47.1

47.8

48.6

WEST

55.0

57.3

56.8

54.6

NATIONAL

52.4

52.3

52.6

54.6

Source: Climate Variations Bulletin, Historical Climatology Series 4-7, December 1998

The Philadelphia School District estimated that spending on energy would be down by $1.5 million. For the state as a whole, government officials predicted that expenditures on winter roads would be lower by $20 million. The New Jersey Department of Transportation boasted that the mild winter saved about a quarter of its winter budget.

Economy

The good weather, however, was generally good for business. Shoppers in the East and Midwest, lured by the balmy weather, turned out in force. In New York City, sales rose 5 percent in February, largely because of the weather. Construction companies, real estate agents, and transportation firms all benefited from the absence of snow and the sunny skies.

Transport companies as well as consumers enjoyed the lowest gasoline prices since the Second World War. Several factors contributed to the precipitous decline in gasoline prices: the collapse of several Asian economies and the consequent fall in the demand for energy; a partial lifting of the embargo on Iraqi production of oil; and, most important, a warmer world which reduced demand for heating oil, natural gas, and electricity. Energy prices fell across the board (Table 2).

Table 2

Consumer Energy Costs relative to 1992-96 Levels

 

1992-96

1997

1998

Gasoline

100

99.5

77.3*

Natural Gas*

100

114.7

92.5**

Electricity*

100

91.6

88.6**

*Average of the first eleven months.

**Average of the first ten months.

Source: Energy Information Agency, Department of Energy; http://ftp.eia.doe.gov/pub/

Minnesota, which enjoyed one of the warmest winters this century, reported that the weather was a boon for its economy. Residents enjoyed a saving in heating bills per household of about $135 to $150. Minnegasco, the natural gas company, suffered, of course, from a 15 percent cut in sales. The utility, however, benefited from a sharp reduction in emergency repairs: in January, there were 21 percent fewer calls; in February, 13 percent fewer. Northern State Power, a major power company in the upper Midwest, also reported reduced sales of electricity, offset in part by lower expenses. On net, residents of the state gained significantly.

Roofers in the upper Midwest were able to do more business; field workers were less encumbered by heavy clothes and tools were warmer and easier to use. In winter, milk delivery companies suffer when snow and ice create obstacles for their trucks. In 1998, in contrast, a major Minnesota dairy, Nelson Creamery, reported no delays in deliveries; during the more typical winter of 1997, the company had two truck rollovers; several other vehicles slid into ditches. The firm spent $1,200 for wrecker services in 1997; zero in 1998.

The good climate produced a bounty on the farm. Although increased production meant lower incomes for farmers, it also meant lower prices for consumers. Contrary to the assertions of global warming activists, who typically forecast crop failures, the warm climate of 1998 led to farm prices that were 13 percent below what they had been in the years 1992 to 1996.

Lifestyle

At driving ranges, golfers in record numbers improved their game. As the Sunday Westchester Weekly (March 22, 1998) put it, "Golfers basked in a spring-like glow almost straight through from November to March, the period that used to be known as winter." Golf courses enjoyed more business than ever. Spring fever was in the air. Even turtles and snakes were out much earlier than is normal.

The unusual weather did have a downside: Princeton sophomores were bemoaning the absence of snow, which threatened the ritual of a nude midnight foot race through the Yard. Those who make extra money plowing driveways were mourning the lack of white stuff. Towing services, which profit from pulling cars out of ditches, remained underused. Although consumers were saving money on heating bills, gas and oil companies were suffering from reduced demand, lower prices, and less revenue. There can be no sunshine without some sunburn.

Health

The Minneapolis post office reported that sprained ankles and falls sustained by its mail carriers were down 40 percent from their usual levels. Only one postal worker suffered from frostbite in 1998, compared to the normal tally of three or four. The absence of harsh weather also meant that service was smoother and more timely while overtime costs were down.

Global warming fear-mongers often predict that a warmer climate will kill people. That is not what happened in 1998. For the first 12 weeks of the year, overall deaths in New York City were down over 8 percent from the levels of 1996 and down 4.5 percent from the previous year. During the following summer, one of the hottest on record, mortality was 6 percent lower than during the cooler summer of 1996 and, of course, it was lower (about 15 percent) than it had been during the winter.

Psyche

Winter’s seeming absence provided mental and emotional benefits as well. The director of psychiatry at Northern Westchester Hospital, Dr. Maureen Empfield, maintained that the warm sunny weather improved people’s moods. As Dr. Empfield put it, "Rarely does anyone come into my office and complain about sunshine." In Minnesota, airlines reported that travel to sunnier climes was down, good news for Twin-Cities residents but bad news for Northwest Airlines.

In the east, low-income elderly residents were delighted with more than just the savings on their heating bills. One octogenarian was deeply thankful for the warm sunny weather, which staved off despondency. Helen Nem complained that she suffers from depression when winter brings snow; 1998 was a year without gloom. And Ervin Pogue of Bucks County Pennsylvania, bragged that this had been the best winter of his 77-year life. "This winter," he chortled, "I’ve had a ball."

At the zoo, tropical animals, which must normally remain inside all winter, were allowed out, much to the delight of the public and undoubtedly of the animals as well. Attendance was up 50 percent at the Philadelphia Zoo in January and February. Even birds benefited: the absence of snow cover meant that they had a plentiful supply of plants for food.

Across the Pond

The warmth of 1998 was also felt across the Atlantic in Great Britain, recalling a similarly warm time: 1995. Researchers recently completed a series of studies aimed at assessing how people got along during that warm year. The Global Atmospheric Division of the British Department of Environment commissioned the University of East Anglia to study the economic impacts of 1995’s exceptional temperatures. Although the researchers failed to put a dollar or pound figure on the results, they concluded that, by and large, it was a good year.

The university’s Climatic Research Unit reported that the twelve months between November 1994 and October 1995 were the warmest in over three hundred years while the summer was 3 degrees Celsius warmer than the average between 1961 and 1990. The East Anglia researchers detailed how the warm weather had affected various sectors. Their report on the Natural Environment was largely favorable, noting that "Bird populations were in general favoured by the mild winter weather of 1995." Fewer algae blooms than expected meant that water quality was maintained. The evidence showed that a sustained increase in temperature of 1.6 degrees Celsius (as occurred in 1995) "would lead to a substantial increase in [forest] productivity." However, in 1995, the wellbeing of some deciduous trees, especially beech, did decline.

Agriculture

Farmers benefited from the warmer weather: arable crops, like wheat, barley, oilseed rape and sugar beets, did well; but the lack of rainfall hurt the production of potatoes and some vegetables. Irrigation, they pointed out, could mitigate those side effects. Unfortunately livestock farming did suffer, but the report stressed that sprinkling and dousing equipment could offset the effect of any warming on livestock. Freshwater trout farming also lost ground: water oxygenation, the study noted, would eliminate those problems. In total, the British farming sector lost about 182 million (roughly $300 million at today’s exchange rates), virtually all of which stemmed from livestock losses, which could be mitigated if the climate warms.

Other Sectors

Moreover, savings in energy consumption more than offset those losses to some farmers. Consumers’ natural gas bills alone were cut by 220 million (about $350 million). On net, including an increase in electricity used for cooling, the U.K. economy paid 355 million (nearly $600 million) less in energy costs.

The Climate Research Unit also found that people needed to spend less on clothing, reducing sales in that sector by 383 million ($600 million) in 1995. The population, however, consumed 134 million more in beer and wine and increased their purchases of fruit and vegetables by 25 million. The increased consumption of beer, wine, fruits, and vegetables suggests that warming would improve the British diet. In total, the researchers estimated that retail sales in 1995 fell by 87 million (about $140 million), reflecting a savings for households of the same magnitude.

The British construction industry, like its American counterpart, is subject to delays and interruptions during bad weather. The report claims that "In a warmer climate, the sector should be less affected by weather, since severe winter conditions, which cause the greatest disruption to this section, will become less common."

The warm winter weather did improve transport during that season, although the hot summer weather led to increased rutting of the road surfaces and higher maintenance costs. On net, the researchers found that the unusually warm conditions in 1995 boosted transport costs by a trivial 16 million. Providing better asphalt would eliminate even that small cost while preserving the savings from reduced traffic delays and fewer potholes.

Climate

The researchers also showed that, as in New York City, warmer weather reduced deaths. A one degree Celsius increase in average temperature cut mortality by about 7,000 per year. Even a 3 degree boost in average temperatures would reduce deaths, more in the winter than the summer, resulting in 3 percent fewer deaths or a saving in human lives of about 17,500 for England and Wales.

According to the authors, the nice weather in the UK, again paralleling the US, evidently led to "a decrease in winter depression," possibly to an increase in violent crime, but with increased levels of sociability. They were, however, unable to document these hypthesized changes.

Economy

Although there was "some evidence that GDP in the fourth quarter is affected by December sunshine," the impact on the economy as a whole was miniscule. The researchers did find that the monthly Retail Price Index was sensitive to weather fluctuations and increased during long periods of hot weather, although they offered no explanation for this anomalous finding. Perhaps warm weather led to more spending, resulting in prices being bid up. But if this were true, the GDP should have reflected the higher level of consumption.

In summary, the University of East Anglia researchers reported: "Clear positive impacts (to the general public) were found for energy and health." They added: "For most areas of human activity in the UK the greatest impacts are sustained from anomalous winter weather. In the transport and construction sectors, for example, activity is severely disrupted by severe winter weather, but the impact of very hot summer weather is by comparison small."

The hot years of 1998 in the United States and 1995 in the United Kingdom indicate that warm weather is good for human beings. People live longer; they spend more of their time outdoors; they save on energy and on clothing. Although people differ in their reactions, the great majority welcome warmer winters. If we do get a warmer world, most men and women will echo Mr. Pogue and have a ball.

References:

Brenner, Elsa. 1998. Winter? or How It Used to Be Known, Sunday Westchester Weekly Desk, March 22.

Palutikof, J.P., S. Subak, and M.D. Agnew. 1997. Impacts of the Exceptionally Hot Weather of 1995 in the UK. Prepared at the request of the Department of the Environment, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

Revkin, Andrew C.. 1998. The Winter the Cold Forgot; Some Pray for Snow, but Others Feel Spring Fever, The New York Times, February 27, Metropolitan Desk.

Shafer, Lisa. 1998. For Many, Winter was an Icing-Free Cakewalk,

with the Mild Weather, people Saved Money in energy Costs. The Elderly "Had a Ball," Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, March 20. Section: Neighbors, B01.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul) Newspaper of the Twin Cities. 1998. Minnesota Economy, Temperatures Moderate, Business Hot, Many Firms getting a Head Start in Retail, Home Sales, Outdoor Work. It’s Been a Great Winter for Transportation Companies, the Postal Service, Realtors, Roofers and Others in the Construction Trade. Wednesday, March 18, Business section, 1D.