Climate Change Comes with Snow Storms, Cold Snaps

Does the cold and snowy winter of 2009-2010 disprove global warming? Not so fast. In fact the snowy weather conditions experienced in the United States and other parts of the world last winter may actually be directly related the planet’s overall warming. Scientists are now predicting that as the Arctic melts due to climate change, air currents will shift so that more cold air blows from far north down to North America, Europe, and eastern Asia.

Dr. James Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says last winter’s cold conditions in many parts of the world can be linked to unusual conditions in the Arctic, where a warming of the climate caused by human activities compounded naturally warmer-than-average conditions to produce a very warm Arctic winter. Ironically, balmier days in the Arctic disrupted wind currents so that countries like the United States actually experienced a prolonged cold snap. Global warming deniers like US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) trumpeted the cold winter as evidence that the planet isn’t actually warming, not realizing that the effects of climate change may well include more extreme winters as well as heat waves in summer.

New findings about the melting Arctic’s effect on lower latitudes provide a convincing argument for those who prefer the term “climate change” to “global warming.” Increasing levels of carbon emissions in the atmosphere may actually cause some parts of the world to get colder, at least in the short term. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that the planet as a whole will, on average, grow warmer. Globally 2009 was the fifth-warmest year on record. Meanwhile last year concluded the warmest decade since accurate record keeping began. Global climate trends will never travel in a straight line due to the many variable involved in climate patterns. But the overall trend is clear: the planet is warming, and to prevent disaster the underlying causes of climate change need to be addressed.

A certain amount of permanent climate change is already inevitable. According to Dr. Overland, the Arctic will probably never recover to its former state even if carbon emissions are drastically curbed. But to prevent greater damage, major carbon emitters like the United States must curtail their use of the fossil fuels and other causes of climate change. Otherwise human civilization will face an increasingly hostile climate very different from the stable conditions in which humanity evolved and thrived. Severe weather events—in winter as well as summer—are just the merest prelude of what’s to come.

The effects of climate change are already causing pain in parts of the world where major floods, severe storms, and droughts are becoming more common. Yet some of the worst effects will take time to materialize. For example as sea levels rise, more and more climate refugees will have to flee flooded areas, creating a humanitarian problem of epic proportions. By the time this happens however, it will likely be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change on a global level. That’s why it’s essential that nations around the world act to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption now.

Media pundits and politicians with ties to the fossil fuel industries will doubtless continue to seize on every snow storm, cold snap, and frosty morning as a chance to call global warming science a lot of bunk. But the climate is much more complex than those in denial are ever likely to realize. To prevent more and more lethal weather events of both hot and cold varieties, the US and other countries must act immediately.

Next time you hear a pundit point to last winter’s snow storms as evidence that decades of peer-reviewed studies should be wrong, remember this: those very winter cold spells may themselves be the effects of climate change making themselves felt, and a reminder of the impact human activities are having on the planet.

Photo credit: Great Snow Storm 2010