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Sep. 14, 2012

Record Breaking Planet

by Lisa Gardiner

Click to enlarge images
Records set during the Olympics by fast swimmers and runners and all sorts of other athletes were exciting. They made people jump out of seats in living rooms around the world and cheer. But records set by our planet are another story. Those make me uneasy.
 
In July, places throughout the United States experienced record heat and record drought. In August and September, shrinking Arctic sea ice has been setting records too. These records can be an indication that our planet isn’t functioning like it usually does – something is not normal.
 
The Olympics would be boring if competitors were all average folks.  For example, no one would tune in to watch me flailing across a pool. And I’d be booed if I held onto the edge for a minute to catch my breath before the next lap. We want to watch Olympians do things that regular humans aren’t able to do. We want the extraordinary.
 
But the records being set by the planet aren’t like the records set during the Olympics. It might seem boring, but I want our planet to be average. When it’s not its usual self, something’s gone awry.
 
Climate is defined as an average of thirty years of weather data. It is the norm, the average, what’s expected. When our planet’s climate veers from what’s expected, when a record is set, the question is – why? It might just be normal variability. Or it might be part of long-term change. Or it could be some of each.
 
The way the word “record” is used to describe irregularities of the planet, and the way it is used to describe feats of athletes seem very different.
 
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a record is “the best performance or most remarkable event of its kind.”
 
Best. Remarkable. These are happy words – appropriate for an Olympic record, but perhaps not a great way to describe the records that our planet is setting. Is there a better word to use? What do you think?
 
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About Lisa Gardiner

Dr. Lisa Gardiner is a writer and content creator at Spark: Science Education at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She likes how citizen science and social media get people involved in science and is a contributing editor at SciStarter.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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