Four reasons why the climate is still changing, despite the cold

Ilissa Ocko

There is no doubt that certain regions of the United States experienced unbearably cold temperatures this winter. But, as any climate scientist will tell you, that’s no reason to doubt the overwhelming evidence about climate change.

Weather is to climate as mood is to personality; and just as you don’t change your opinion of a generally upbeat friend because she had a rough day and acted grouchy during lunch, you shouldn’t dismiss climate change because of some cold weather and snowstorms.

Here are 4 things to consider about the recent cold weather and climate change:

  1. While parts of the United States were suffering through freezing temperatures, the Earth as a whole had its 4th warmest January on record. Australia agonized through a massive heat wave in the beginning of 2014, with temperatures above 120ºF; it was over 60ºF in parts of Europe on Christmas Day; and Russia had its warmest November-December since record keeping began in 1900. Even in the United States, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains were uncharacteristically warm this winter, and California set the record for warmest winter ever recorded.
  2. Winters in the United States have warmed considerably since the 1970s, making what used to be a typical winter feel even more frigid nowadays. The wintertime warming trend is most prominent in some of the coldest areas of the country, such as the Northeast and Upper Midwest. But for many cities , including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, winter temperatures ranked in the middle of the range of historical winters.
  3. More snow is counter-intuitively also an indication of climate change. Heat-trapping gases released by human activities (such as generating electricity and driving cars) are preventing heat from escaping to space and thereby warming the planet.  It is scientifically expected that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and scientists have confirmed through measurements that the atmospheric water content has increased considerably. More moisture means the capability of more precipitation, and if temperatures drop below freezing, this means more snow. Several cities nationwide set snowfall records this winter.
  4. Research teams are starting to connect the dots between a warming Arctic and cold winters in the United States. While it is still too early for scientists to reach a consensus about this plausible link, it is speculated that melting sea ice in the Arctic can weaken the jet stream, allowing for cold Arctic air to penetrate into the mid-latitudes.

Unfortunately climate change is very real, and we need to take measures sooner rather than later to slow it down and prevent catastrophic warming in the long-term.  Or we won’t have  a snowball’s chance in a very warm place.

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