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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists this year will update how they calculate average temperatures, altering our reference point of a "normal climate."

Why it matters: What we think of as normal in life — whether in climate, politics or society — is always changing due to what's known as the "shifting baselines syndrome." Because we often miss those changes, we end up with a warped image of the present that shapes our policies and our future.

What's happening: This spring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will update its calculation of average temperatures and precipitation.

  • "Normal" high and low temperatures and precipitation — the figures you might see on a daily weather report — are drawn from weather data over a 30-year period, a practice that has been maintained for over a century.
  • Every decade forecasters shift to a newer 30-year data set. Over the past decade that meant 1981–2010, but beginning this year averages will be calculated from 1991–2020.

Because 1991–2020 was warmer than 1981–2010 in nearly every part of the U.S., the update means what we classify as normal temperatures now will actually be higher than just a year ago, because the baseline for what's considered normal has shifted.

Background: The term "shifting baselines" was coined in 1995 by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in what became a landmark paper.

  • Pauly was writing about the efforts of fisheries science to determine what was a sustainable catch level for commercial fish.
  • The problem, as Pauly wrote, was that "each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes."
  • By the time the next generation of scientists began their career, those stocks had declined because of overfishing. But instead of including that decline in their measurements, the new generation of scientists treats the reduced stocks as the new baseline.

Once you've awakened to the concept of shifting baselines, you begin to see it everywhere, from the effects of climate change to our gradual accommodation to COVID-19's once unthinkably high death count.

  • Shifting baselines syndrome is an example of amnesia in action, whether taking place over the course of generations, as Pauly described with fisheries scientists, or even within an individual's lifetime.
  • A 2009 study found evidence of generational amnesia among hunters perceptions of prey species populations in Gabon to perceptions of bird population trends in the U.K. In each case, the researchers found people weren't able to fully perceive the decline that was happening because "younger generations are not aware of past biological conditions."
  • A study published last year looked at Twitter to see how people reacted to unusually hot or cold days. Researchers found the baseline for "normal" was weather that had been experienced just two to eight years before — hardly long enough to accurately perceive the changes wrought by global warming.

Be smart: In essence, shifting baselines syndrome results from one of the fundamental aspects of human psychology: our remarkable ability to adjust to circumstances, whether good or bad.

Of note: Some climate scientists have urged weather agencies to fight shifting baselines by sticking with a static 30-year time period when calculating weather averages, rather than updating the reference period every decade.

The bottom line: If we lose our way among shifting baselines, we lose our ability to value what we've accomplished in the past and fight for what we want to save in the future.

Go deeper

2020 was an extraordinary year for fires. Expect more like it.

A firefighter at a wildfire in San Mateo, California, Aug. 19. Nearly 4.2 million acres has burned in the state this year — the most on record, per Cal Fire. Wildfires have killed 31 people and razed over 10,400 structures in the state in 2020. Photo: Liu Guanguan/China News Service via Getty Images

2020 has been an extraordinary year for wildfires on the U.S. West Coast and around the world, but you should expect more of the same this decade and in years to come.

For the record: That's the assessment of University of California, Los Angeles, climate scientist Daniel Swain, who says we need to learn to live with fire better by embracing good management practices, including traditional indigenous management.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong to put tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

Trump impeachment trial to start week of Feb. 8, Schumer says

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: The Washington Post via Getty

The Senate will begin former President Trump's impeachment trial the week of Feb. 8, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday on the Senate floor.

The state of play: Schumer announced the schedule after reaching an agreement with Republicans. The House will transmit the article of impeachment against the former president late Monday.

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