Cold weather, warming climate. Both are true.

Reporter
Yahoo News
Elena Barduniotis from Colorado waits in Times Square during New Year’s celebrations Dec. 31. (Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Elena Barduniotis from Colorado waits in Times Square during New Year’s celebrations Dec. 31. (Photo: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

The East Coast experienced bitter cold this holiday season, and it’s about to be pounded by a “bomb cyclone” on Thursday. Whenever harsh winter weather strikes the United States, deniers point to the falling snow and dipping temperatures as evidence that climate change is a hoax.

Two years ago, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., infamously tossed a snowball on the Senate floor in an attempt to debunk climate science. Just last week, President Trump suggested that the frigid New Year’s Eve temperatures — which made the Times Square ball-drop the second coldest on record — was evidence enough that climate change is bunk.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad


It may be counterintuitive to think about how the planet is getting warmer while shoveling your car out of the snow. But it’s nonetheless true. And in a twist of irony, global warming may be driving the colder temperatures that the U.S. has been experiencing this winter.

David Kanter, a professor of environmental studies at New York University who researches climate change, explained that one of the main reasons Trump does not understand climate change is that he’s confusing weather with climate.

“Weather is what we feel and experience outside in our immediate surroundings that’s measured anywhere from minutes to months. Climate are those weather patterns but measured over decades to centuries,” Kanter told Yahoo News. “So, pointing to one weather event as reason for disproving this decadal to centuries-long phenomenon we know as climate change is just false.”

Kevin Deiner of Erie, Pa., digs out his Ford Escape on Dec. 30. (Photo: Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News via AP)
Kevin Deiner of Erie, Pa., digs out his Ford Escape on Dec. 30. (Photo: Jack Hanrahan/Erie Times-News via AP)

Climate scientists suggest the cold snaps we’ve been experiencing during the past few years, particularly in the Northeast, have been a paradoxical result of the warming climate. Kanter explained that a main reason for this is that the Arctic has been heating up much faster than the rest of the planet. This has disrupted the polar winds that traditionally trap very cold air. Now that cold air is slipping farther south.

“I know it may seem counterintuitive, as a result of a warming Arctic, more of that polar air is reaching these southern latitudes,” he said.

According to Kanter, there’s a case to be made that the very data points that Trump thinks disprove climate change are actually additional evidence of climate change. In other words, we may be in an era of unprecedented climate weirdness — when Jacksonville, Fla., can get colder than Anchorage, Alaska, as it was on Tuesday — as a result of humans releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Brenda Ekwurzel, a senior climate scientist and the director of climate science for the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, started her career collecting samples and conducting research aboard icebreakers in the high Arctic for about a year. She said it’s normal for people to be surprised by the reality of climate change while experiencing winter conditions.

A fjord in southern Greenland, as seen during Operation IceBridge’s last flight of the 2017 Arctic campaign, on May 12. (Photo: NASA/John Sonntag)
A fjord in southern Greenland, as seen during Operation IceBridge’s last flight of the 2017 Arctic campaign, on May 12. (Photo: NASA/John Sonntag)

Ekwurzel said it’s important for people to distinguish between cold weather events at home and climate change globally. The United States takes up only about 2 percent of the earth’s surface area, so any weather event can distract us from greater trends.

“If you look at the map of the larger world with the temperature change from normal for this time of year, you would see that the U.S. is popping out as extremely cold. Unusually cold. The rest of the globe is much warmer than the normal average,” Ekwurzel told Yahoo News.

Slideshow: Winter storm and bitter cold sweeps much of the country >>>

The continental United States has been experiencing notable anthropogenic climate change since the Industrial Revolution. Lately, Americans have become accustomed to colder winters with some cold snaps.

However, she said, the more extreme winter weather conditions in the Northern Hemisphere — cold temperatures in the continental U.S. and really warm temperatures in Alaska — is partially explained by evolving scientific thinking about changes in the patterns of the jet streams since the 2000s.

She said jet streams are usually very fast and tight in the winter, but that since the 2000s the “peak-to-trough” distance has expanded — extending the time it takes for a weather pattern to sweep across the country. Troughs of cold air push from the Arctic down toward the equator. Peaks of warm air push from the equatorial regions north toward the Arctic. These slow-moving streams, which may once have taken five days to cross the U.S.,  can now take up to two weeks, she said.

Tony Sampson, who received a blanket from Star of Hope’s Love in Action van, tries to warm up by a fire under the Eastex Freeway as temperatures hover in the 30s in Houston on Jan. 2. (Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP)
Tony Sampson, who received a blanket from Star of Hope’s Love in Action van, tries to warm up by a fire under the Eastex Freeway as temperatures hover in the 30s in Houston on Jan. 2. (Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP)

“When something sets up like that, ironically, with global warming, we can have more extreme cold for longer in the continental United States than in the past. It’s very counterintuitive,” she said.

Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis, who did groundbreaking research on these phenomena, has described the slow-moving jet streams as “wavy.” Ekwurzel explained that we don’t know in advance exactly where these patterns will set up each winter, and hence which regions of the U.S. will experience milder or harsher winters.

The current scientific debate, Ekwurzel said, is over how much of these changes are part of natural cycles and how much stems from anthropogenic climate change.

“Everyone agrees that things are shifting. The question is how much is that affecting our world today and what will change going forward with further climate change,” she said. “People [who] think the Arctic doesn’t relate to their lives are kidding themselves.”

Earth image on Dec. 30, created by combining the color channels of the Suomi NPP satellite’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument. (Photo: NOAA)
Earth image on Dec. 30, created by combining the color channels of the Suomi NPP satellite’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument. (Photo: NOAA)

Trump’s well-documented denial of climate change has real-world implications. He positions himself as an ally of coal country and regularly argues that policy proposals to combat climate change would kill jobs. He also withdrew the U.S. from the international Paris Agreement, which he thinks unfairly benefited countries such as China and India.

There are Republicans who accept the science of climate change while still holding small-government values. Some have offered conservative solutions to combat climate change by incentivizing the free market and putting a price on carbon so that polluters, rather than the public at large, pay for the damage to the environment.

Regardless, there is overwhelming scientific consensus that the earth’s climate has been warming as a result of human activity. For instance, the American Meteorological Society affirmed this long-standing position in a statement years ago: “It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and nitrous oxide.”

Read more from Yahoo News:

What to Read Next