This winter has seen some brutally-cold weather in many places, some of it record-breaking. Predictably, some climate-change deniers point to this as evidence that the climate is not warming at all. They are quite wrong.
For starters, it is essential to understand the difference between climate and weather. Climate is the average weather patterns in a region over extended periods of time. Weather is the short-term fluctuations in temperature, precipitation, barometric pressure, wind, and so forth. There can be extremes in weather of many types in a given climate region including very cold weather in a warming climate.
The recent cold weather events in the U.S. stem from the flow of Arctic air into southern regions. Such flows are impacted dramatically by the behavior of the jet stream. These high-altitude east-to-west winds are driven by temperature differences between cold arctic air and warm tropical air and play a huge role in our weather.
The Arctic has seen extremely unusual warming due to the changing climate, weakening and fracturing the polar vortex, which is a persistent low-pressure area near the pole. The changing air flow from the Arctic causes the jet stream to take wild swings. When it swings further south, it causes cold air to reach farther south. These swings tend to hang around for a while, leading to extended periods of cold weather in the winter and, actually, extended periods of warm weather or even droughts in the summer. Studies have predicted that extreme, deadly weather events could increase by as much as fifty percent by 2100.
As more Arctic air flows into southern regions, North America can expect to see harsher winters. The warming climate doesn’t always lead to warmer weather.
Photo, posted January 30, 2019, courtesy of Kyle via Flickr.