Observed climate change in West Virginia

By | May 12, 2008

west va climate change header image

west va flag

sppi red logo

For the Full Report in PDF Form, please click here.

[Illustrations, footnotes and references available in PDF version]

Annual temperature: Over the course of the past 113 years, the time since statewide records have been compiled by the U.S. National Climatic Data Center, the statewide annual average temperature history of West Virginia exhibits no statistically significant trend either towards cooling or warming. Instead, the temperature history of West Virginia is dominated by inter-annual and inter-decadal variability. For instance, the slight warming observed during the last 30 years was immediately preceded by a three decade-long cooling trend of equal magnitude from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. And prior to that, a half-century long warming trend occurred during the first half of the 20th century—long before the talk of human impacts to the climate began. When placed within the proper historical context, observed temperatures during recent years across West Virginia prove to be unremarkable and cannot and should not be used as evidence that “global warming” is pushing the temperature in West Virginia beyond its natural range of variability.

West Virginia annual temperatures, 1895-2007
Annual mean temperatures

Figure 1. Annual statewide average temperature history for West Virginia, 1895-2007 (available from the National Climatic Data Center, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/cag3/wv.html).

Seasonal temperatures: When the statewide average temperature history is examined for each of the four seasons, again, there is no evidence of any unusual trends taking place either over the short run or the long run. Once again, the record is dominated by year-to-year and decade-to-decade variations. In none of the four seasons do recent temperatures appear unusual when properly set against the background of the long-term observed temperature history. Simply put, there is no evidence of “global warming” in the temperature history of West Virginia.

West Virginia seasonal temperatures, 1895-2007
Seasonal mean temperatures

Figure 2. Seasonal statewide average temperature history of West Virginia (source: National Climatic Data Center, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/cag3/wv.html).

Precipitation: An examination of the West Virginia’s statewide precipitation history from 1895-2007 shows more of the same—large year-to-year variability, but only a small degree of overall change. The inter-annual variability, ranging from a high of 60.35 inches in 2003 to a low of 25.74 inches in 1930, dominates the small (about 5% increase) long-term trend. There is no evidence that dry years are increasing in either frequency or intensity, in fact, there were many more dry years during the early part of the record than in the latter part.

West Virginia annual precipitation, 1895-2007

Figure 3. Statewide average precipitation history of West Virginia, 1895-2007 (source: National Climatic Data Center, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/cag3/wv.html).

Drought: As could be surmised from the lack of any large trend in precipitation across the state of West Virginia, there has likewise been no large trend in the soil moisture conditions across the state. According to records compiled by the National Climatic Data Center since 1895, statewide monthly average Palmer Drought Severity Index values—a standard measure of moisture conditions that takes into account both inputs from precipitation and losses from evaporation—shows a slight positive trend (towards in increasing moisture availability), although short-term variations are still quite evident. The slight, long-term increase in statewide annual average precipitation, coupled with an absence of long-term change in the state’s annual average temperatures has led to a decrease in the occurrence of widespread drought events in West Virginia. The early portion of the record was marked by a greater number of droughts than the most recent period.

West Virginia drought severity, 1895-2007
Palmer drought severity index

Figure 4. Monthly statewide average values of the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) for the state of West Virginia, 1895-2007 (data from the National Climate Data Center, www.ncdc.noaa.gov)

Heatwaves: The population of West Virginia has likely become less sensitive to the impacts of excessive heat events over the course of the past 30-40 years. This is true in most major cities across the United States—a result of the increased availability and use of air-conditioning and the implementation of social programs aimed at caring for high-risk individuals—despite rising urban temperatures.

Heat-related mortality trends across the U.S.

Figure 5. Annual heat-related mortality rates (excess deaths per standard million population). Each histogram bar indicates a different decade (from left to right, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s). (Source: Davis et al., 2003b).

A number of studies have shown that during the several decades, the population in major U.S. cities has grown better adapted, and thus less sensitive, to the effects of excessive heat events (Davis et al., 2003ab). Each of the bars of the illustration above represents the annual number of heat-related deaths in 28 major cities across the United States. There should be three bars for each city, representing, from left to right, the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990. For nearly all cities, including the ones closest to West Virginia, the number of heat-related deaths is declining (the bars are get smaller). This indicates that there has been a decrease in heat-related deaths over time—meaning that the population has become better adapted to heat waves. This adaptation is most likely a result of improvements in medical technology, access to air-conditioned homes, cars, and offices, increased public awareness of potentially dangerous weather situations, and proactive responses of municipalities during extreme weather events.

The pattern of the distribution of heat-related mortality shows that in locations where extremely high temperatures are more commonplace, such as along the southern tier states, the prevalence of heat-related mortality is much lower than in the regions of the country where extremely high temperatures are somewhat rarer (e.g. the northeastern U.S.). This provides another demonstration that populations adapt to their prevailing climate conditions. If temperatures warm in the future and excessive heat events become more common, there is every reason to expect that adaptations will take place to lessen their impact on the general population.

Vector-borne diseases: Malaria, dengue fever, and West Nile Virus, which have been erroneously predicted to spread owing to “global warming,” are not tropical diseases. Climate change will accordingly have a negligible effect on their transmission rates. These diseases are readily controlled by well-known public health policies.

Malaria epidemics occurred as far north as Archangel, Russia, in the 1920s, and in the Netherlands. Malaria was common in most of the United States until the 1950s (Reiter, 1996). In the late 1800s, when the United States was colder than today, malaria was endemic east of the Rocky Mountains—a region stretching from the Gulf Coast all the way up into northern Minnesota.

Malaria occurrence in the United States, 1880s

Figure 6. In the late 19th century malaria was endemic in the shaded regions across the United States (Source: Reiter, 2001).

In 1878, 100,000 Americans were infected with malaria, and some 25,000 died. Malaria was eradicated from the United States in the 1950s not because of climate change (it was warmer in the 1950s than in the 1880s), but because of technological advances. Air-conditioning, the use of screen doors and windows, and the elimination of urban overpopulation brought about by the development of suburbs and automobile commuting were largely responsible for the decline in malaria (Reiter, 1996).

The effect of technology is also clear from statistics on dengue fever outbreaks, another mosquito-borne disease. In 1995, a dengue pandemic hit the Caribbean and Mexico. More than 2,000 cases were reported in the Mexican border town of Reynosa. But in the town of Hidalgo, Texas, located just across the river, there were only seven reported cases (Reiter, 1996). This is just not an isolated example. Data collected over the past decade have shown a similarly large disparity between incidence of disease in northern Mexico and in the southwestern United States, though there is very little climate difference.

Another “tropical” disease that is often wrongly linked to climate change is the West Nile Virus. The claim is often made that a warming climate is allowing the mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus to spread into West Virginia. This reasoning is incorrect. West Nile Virus, a mosquito-borne infection, was introduced to the United States through the port of New York in summer 1999. Since its introduction, it has spread rapidly, reaching the West Coast by 2002. Incidence has now been documented in every state as well as most provinces of Canada. This is not a sign that the U.S. and Canada are progressively warming. Rather, it is a sign that the existing environment is primed for the virus. In the infected territories, mean temperature has a range more than 40ºF. The virus can thrive from the tropics to the tundra of the Arctic—anywhere with a resident mosquito population. The already-resident mosquito populations of West Virginia are appropriate hosts for the West Nile virus—as they are in every other state.

Impacts of climate-mitigation measures in West Virginia

Globally, in 2003, humankind emitted 25,780 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (mmtCO2: EIA, 2007a), of which emissions from West Virginia accounted for 114.4 mmtCO2, or only 0.44% (EIA, 2007b). The proportion of manmade CO2 emissions from West Virginia will decrease over the 21st century as the rapid demand for power in developing countries such as China and India outpaces the growth of West Virginia’s CO2 emissions (EIA, 2007b).

During the past 5 years, global emissions of CO2 from human activity have increased at an average rate of 3.5%/yr (EIA, 2007a), meaning that the annual increase of anthropogenic global CO2 emissions is about 8 times greater than West Virginia’s total emissions. Even a complete cessation of all CO2 emissions in West Virginia will be undetectable globally. A fortiori, regulations prescribing a reduction, rather than a complete cessation, of West Virginia’s CO2 emissions will have no effect on global climate.

Wigley (1998) examined the climate impact of adherence to the emissions controls agreed under the Kyoto Protocol by participating nations, and found that, if all developed countries meet their commitments in 2010 and maintain them through 2100, with a mid-range sensitivity of surface temperature to changes in CO2, the amount of warming “saved” by the Kyoto Protocol would be 0.07°C by 2050 and 0.15°C by 2100. The global sea level rise “saved” would be 2.6 cm, or one inch. A complete cessation of CO2 emissions in West Virginia is only a tiny fraction of the worldwide reductions assumed in Dr. Wigley’s global analysis, so its impact on future trends in global temperature and sea level will be only a minuscule fraction of the negligible effects calculated by Dr. Wigley.

We now apply Dr. Wigley’s results to CO2 emissions in West Virginia, assuming that the ratio of U.S. CO2 emissions to those of the developed countries which have agreed to limits under the Kyoto Protocol remains constant at 39% (25% of global emissions) throughout the 21st century. We also assume that developing countries such as China and India continue to emit at an increasing rate. Consequently, the annual proportion of global CO2 emissions from human activity that is contributed by human activity in the United States will decline. Finally, we assume that the proportion of total U.S. CO2 emissions in West Virginia – now 2.0% – remains constant throughout the 21st century. With these assumptions, we generate the following table derived from Wigley’s (1998) mid-range emissions scenario (which itself is based upon the IPCC’s scenario “IS92a”):

Table 1
Projected annual CO2 emissions (mmtCO2)

Note: Developed countries’ emissions, according to Wigley’s assumptions, do not change between 2025 and 2050: neither does total U.S or West Virginia emissions.

In Table 2, we compare the total CO2 emissions saving that would result if West Virginia’s CO2 emissions were completely halted by 2025 with the emissions savings assumed by Wigley (1998) if all nations met their Kyoto commitments by 2010, and then held their emissions constant throughout the rest of the century. This scenario is “Kyoto Const.”

Table 2
Projected annual CO2 emissions savings (mmtCO2)

Table 3 shows the proportion of the total emissions reductions in Wigley’s (1998) case that would be contributed by a complete halt of all West Virginia’s CO2 emissions (calculated as column 2 in Table 2 divided by column 3 in Table 2).

Table 3
West Virginia’ percentage of emissions savings

Using the percentages in Table 3, and assuming that temperature change scales in proportion to CO2 emissions, we calculate the global temperature savings that will result from the complete cessation of anthropogenic CO2 emissions in West Virginia:

Table 4
Projected global temperature savings (ºC)

Accordingly, a cessation of all of West Virginia’s CO2 emissions would result in a climatically-irrelevant global temperature reduction by the year 2100 of about three thousandths of a degree Celsius. Results for sea-level rise are also negligible:

Table 5
Projected global sea-level rise savings (cm)

A complete cessation of all anthropogenic emissions from West Virginia will result in a global sea-level rise savings by the year 2100 of an estimated 0.06 cm, or about two hundredths of an inch. Again, this value is climatically irrelevant.

Even if the entire Western world were to close down its economies completely and revert to the Stone Age, without even the ability to light fires, the growth in emissions from China and India would replace our entire emissions in little more than a decade. In this context, any cuts in emissions from West Virginia would be extravagantly pointless.

Costs of Federal Legislation

And what would be the potential costs to West Virginia of legislative actions designed to cap greenhouse gas emissions? An analysis was recently completed by the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), under contract from the American Council for Capital Formation and the National Association of Manufacturers (ACCF and NAM), using the National Energy Modeling System (NEMS); the same model employed by the US Energy Information Agency to examine the economic impacts.

For a complete description of their findings please visit: http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/economic-impact/index.php

To summarize, SAIC found that by the year 2020, average annual household income in West Virginia would decline by $677 to $2196 and by the year 2030 the decline would increase to between $2855 and $5206. The state would stand to lose between 7,000 and 11,000 jobs by 2020 and between 20,000 and 27,000 jobs by 2030. At the same time gas prices could increase by over $5 a gallon by the year 2030 and the states’ Gross Domestic Product could decline by then by as much as $2.8 billion/yr.

And all this economic hardship would come with absolutely no detectable impact on the course of future climate. This is the epitome of a scenario that is all pain and no gain.

Figure 7. The economic impacts in West Virginia of federal legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions green. (Source: Science Applications International Corporation, 2008, http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/economic-impact/index.php)


Davis, R.E., et al., 2003a. Decadal changes in summer mortality in the U. S. cities. International Journal of Biometeorology, 47, 166-175.

Davis, R.E., et al., 2003b. Changing heat-related mortality in the United States. Environmental Health Perspectives, 111, 1712-1718.

Energy Information Administration, 2007a. International Energy Annual, 2005. U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., http://www.eia.doe.gov/iea/contents.html

Energy Information Administration, 2007b. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States, 2006. U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/pdf/0573(2006).pdf

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Summary for Policymakers, (http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM2feb07.pdf)

National Climatic Data Center, U.S. National/State/Divisional Data, (www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/climatedata.html)

Reiter, P., 1996. Global warming and mosquito-borne disease in the USA. The Lancet, 348, 662.

Wigley, T.M.L., 1998. The Kyoto Protocol: CO2, CH4 and climate implications. Geophysical Research Letters, 25, 2285-2288.