It’s cold outside — so there’s no global warming, right?

January 8, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

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A man passes the sculpture outside BB&T’s office tower in downtown Charleston on Thursday afternoon, after the latest snow to hit the area began falling. Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp.

Well … I just wanted to pass on this information from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Recent heavy snow storms and cold weather have prompted some commentators to suggest that a cold winter proves global warming isn’t really happening.

Don’t let those naysayers snow you.

A few snow storms, cold snaps or even heat waves do not prove anything about climate change, because there is a significant difference between weather and climate. Weather is what we experience on any given day or even over a couple weeks. Climate describes a region’s prevailing conditions — including such things as temperature, rainfall, wind, humidity and atmospheric pressure — over long periods of time. Climate is a good indicator of what to expect. For example, in the Midwest, one would expect cold winters. Whereas, in a Mediterranean climate, one would expect a generally milder winter.

Climate change refers to shifts in prevailing conditions observed over decades. One such shift is a long-term rise in global average temperatures. The current cold spells are occurring against this backdrop.

Putting aside the difference between weather and climate, climate change projections show that a warming planet generates more precipitation in areas that typically experience rain or snow. Rising ocean surface temperatures already have increased the temperature and moisture content of the air passing over the United States, setting the stage for heavier snow and rain storms. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that global warming has increased the frequency of storms that dump heavy precipitation over most land regions that experience storms. Most deserts, conversely, are getting drier.

“Climate scientists aren’t at all surprised that there are more drenching rain or blizzards in certain parts of the country,” said Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “That’s consistent with well-documented climate change trends over the past several decades. Unless we take some dramatic steps to curb global warming, we likely will see a lot more regional precipitation over the next few decades.”

Precipitation in the Northeast has increased markedly over the last century, according to the Northeast Climate Impact Assessment, a collaboration between UCS and a team of more than 50 scientists and economists. Over the past few decades, winter precipitation in the Northeast has increased 0.15 inch per decade.

The Northeast is not alone. According to Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, released last year by 13 federal agencies, Great Lakes states are experiencing more precipitation because the lakes have less ice and more open water in the winter. The maximum seasonal coverage of Great Lakes ice decreased approximately 30 percent from 1973 through 2008. That means more lake water is likely to evaporate into the atmosphere, resulting in heavier snowstorms.

14 Responses to “It’s cold outside — so there’s no global warming, right?”

  1. Dave Bassage says:

    Thanks for being proactive on this, Ken. It’s pretty standard fare these days for climate skeptics to offer snide comments with every cold snap.

    Another good piece of information is the following study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

    “Record High Temperatures Far Outpace Record Lows Across U.S.

    2009-11-12 00:00:00.0

    BOULDER—Spurred by a warming climate, daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows over the last decade across the continental United States, new research shows. The ratio of record highs to lows is likely to increase dramatically in coming decades if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to climb.

    “Climate change is making itself felt in terms of day-to-day weather in the United States,” says Gerald Meehl, the lead author and a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “The ways these records are being broken show how our climate is already shifting.” ”

    The rest of the article, which has a great graphic illustrating the steady increase in the ratio of record highs to lows since the seventies, plus more discussion of the phenomenon, can be found here:

    http://www.ucar.edu/news/releases/2009/maxmin.jsp

  2. Nanette says:

    Thanks Ken for addressing this. People just can’t seem to understand global climate change. Actually this can bring on another ice age for the northern regions if the sea flow changes and we don’t get that gulf stream warmth. Fresh water dilution from ice melt can stop the flow of the salty underwater flow that circles the Earth. Our planet depends on this flow long term for our climate to remain normal.

  3. JL says:

    How can people be so fickle? Doesn’t anyone see the problem with it snowing in Baton Rouge not just twice in two years, but twice and now thrice in two seasons? And Texas suffering the coldest temperatures in years? There is a difference between weather and climate, and it seems to me that the climate is experiencing some disconcerting problems evidenced by the odd weather which is being produced.

  4. Red Desert says:

    JL–

    Someone recently commented about this on Coal Tattoo (Dave Bassage?) Anyway–global warming should lead to more freaky weather because there is more energy in the system. And–conservation of energy–can be, no will be, both heat energy and kinetic energy. More kinetic energy might mean bigger perturbations of the jet stream.

    Don’t pretend to be an expert; the other comment was a lot better than mine. But seems to me the weird weather might just raise more questions.

  5. JL says:

    I completely agree, Red.

  6. Dave Bassage says:

    Red, I don’t think that was my comment, at least not to that degree of detail, but I have certainly seen plenty of conjecture supporting what you write.

    The tough thing is that we’re in uncharted territory here from a climate perspective. There’s no record of such a dramatic shift in such a short period of greenhouse gas composition in the planet’s history, so predicting just what the consequences will be can only bring so much certainty with it.

    Skeptics will cite that uncertainty as justification for not taking steps to minimize our climate impact, but so far at least, observed consequences are outpacing predictions.

  7. Dell Spade says:

    Nanette, you have been watching too many fictional diaster movies……….

  8. Clem Guttata says:

    Dell Spade — I can understand the temptation to dismiss things that sound strange and troubling. Life would be a whole lot easier for all of us if mining and burning coal had no consequences.

    One reason we need to act now on global climate change is the longer we act the more expensive it is. The idea we can somehow adapt to whatever changes happen sounds great until you look into just how expensive and disruptive it could be.

    For anyone interested in more details about what Nanette is (probably) referring to, here’s a good writeup on the potential shutdown of the thermhaline circulation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shutdown_of_thermohaline_circulation . There’s already evidence those ocean currents are slowing.

    Consistent with that is freak events like the gulf stream heading to Greenland: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2010/1/6/185356/1992

    Just like the cumulative effects of mountain top removal are already happening, the cumulative effects of putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere are, too. Are we wise enough to pay attention and stop doing more harm, or are we so foolish to think the effects will skip over our house and only strike our neighbors?

  9. Clem Guttata says:

    We’re seeing a lot more record highs than record lows. That is consistent with a warming trend in global climate change.

    http://www.ucar.edu/news/releases/2009/maxmin.jsp

  10. Nanette says:

    Thanks Clem that is what I was referring too, and no Mr. Spade I haven’t been watching science fiction movies.

  11. Jason Robinson says:

    The warming of Greenland has a lot to do with pushing this Arctic mass of air down into N America. It’s frustrating to repeatedly hear point measurements of say Tampa or my backyard or anywhere used to say “where is the warming”, when it’s entirely possible (and in this instance it’s true) that elsewhere warming trends are occurring. Global averages could STILL be warming even with the cold snap in the eastern US.

    These two sites might be useful in the discussion.

    http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2010/010510.html

    and a summary

    http://climateprogress.org/2010/01/06/science-nsidc-warm-greenland-arctic-rotten-ice-multi-year-arctic-oscillation/

  12. Thomas Rodd says:

    Great set of posts! Thanks for the info. Personally, I see those receding glaciers — and re;locating species — as pretty decent indicators of which way we are heading on a planetary basis. It isn’t toward the bottom of the thermometer.

  13. Casey says:

    Sounds like the cold causes problem with wind power (see below):

    The cold weather has been accompanied by high pressure and a lack of wind, which meant that only 0.2pc of a possible 5pc of the UK’s energy was generated by wind turbines over the last few days.

    Jeremy Nicholson, director of the Energy Intensive Users Group (EIUG), gave warning that this could turn into a crisis when the UK is reliant on 6,400 turbines accounting for a quarter of all UK electricity demand over the next 10 years.

    Coal stations are currently used as back-up generation when there is a surge in demand for gas and the wind does not blow – which both tend to happen during cold weather.

  14. […] I guess my post a few weeks ago, “It’s cold outside, so there’s no global warming, right?” wasn’t exactly what Gene had in mind.  In that post, I simply passed on some pretty […]

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