University of Georgia student Amelia Johnson said she would describe Athens’ recent weather as “unnerving.” On Wednesday, Feb. 5, she wore shorts. The next day, she sought shelter in a hallway during a tornado warning. On Saturday, she woke up to snow.
Last week, Athens experienced temperatures in the 70s, a tornado warning, heavy rain and snow within four days.
According to the National Weather Service, in January 2019, Athens received 5.34 inches of rain — the total in January 2020 was 7.49. Athens received 5.42 inches of rain between Feb. 4 and Feb. 11, according to The Weather Channel.
While an increase in intense weather events can be a consequence of climate change, Marshall Shepherd, the director of the UGA atmospheric sciences program, cautioned against blaming last week’s weather on climate change, saying it was caused by a strong cold front moving through Athens.
“Of course climate change is real, and humans are causing it, but it’s a little careless to try to couple this week to climate change,” Shepherd said, describing it as “typical winter weather variability.”
Shepherd said the effects of climate change in Athens will vary. For this year, Shepherd expects a continuing mild winter with only a few cold spells.
In the longer term, climate change may have more severe effects. Shepherd said Athens may see more heat waves and fewer cold temperatures. Hurricanes may become stronger and venture farther north, and intense storms will continue to be a trend.
On Feb. 10, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch in parts of North Georgia — including Athens — until the following evening. The week before, the high in Athens reached 77 degrees with partly cloudy and clear days along with the rain and snow.
Kevin Gentry, superintendent of the Athens-Clarke County Streets & Drainage Division, said the city experienced some standing water due to heavy rainfall and saturated ground.
Athens resident Stephanie Leathers lives near the Middle Oconee River and said she and her neighbors are unfazed by flood warnings.
“We live by a river that overflows during any heavy rain. We’re always on the lookout for it but we usually experience flooding in our streets and some homes,” Leathers said.
Last year, the flooding in her neighborhood near Five Points increased so much that an “area prone to flash flooding” sign was posted, Leathers said.
Rain wasn’t the only thing that troubled people in Athens last week. On Feb. 6 at 9:50 a.m., UGA Alert sent out a notification announcing a tornado warning and warning students to “seek shelter indoors immediately.”
Instead of moving into an interior hallway, as UGA protocol suggests, Parker Jamieson’s class in the environmental health science building watched as the rain pounded on the windows.
In a week of flash flood warnings and a tornado watch, Jamieson, a senior microbiology major, said UGA should prioritize students’ safety and consider canceling classes when travel around campus could be unsafe. When there is a tornado warning, the UGA bus system ceases operation in accordance with university policy.
Residents and students called the sporadic weather “bizarre” but expect more of it in the coming months.
“Are we in a generation likely of extreme or weirder weather because of climate change? Probably so,” Shepherd said. “Can I exclusively and specifically say that this week’s wacky weather that we experienced here in Athens is caused by climate change? Probably not.”