Quantcast

Winter Weather Doesn’t Disprove Global Warming

Insights + Opinion
A cold morning sunrise in Enköping, Sweden on Jan. 27, when the temperature reached a low of 13°F. Anders Uhrvik / Flickr

Weather and climate aren't the same. It's one thing for people who spend little or no time learning about global warming to confuse the two, but when those we elect to represent us don't know the difference, we're in trouble.

For a U.S. president to tweet about what he referred to as "Global Waming" because parts of the country are experiencing severe winter conditions displays a profound ignorance that would be embarrassing for an ordinary citizen, let alone the leader of a world power.


To understand the distinction, it's important to know the difference between "global warming" and "climate change." Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there's a subtle difference. Current global warming refers to the overall phenomenon whereby global average temperatures are steadily increasing more rapidly than can be explained by natural factors. Much of the climate change we're already seeing—from increasing extreme weather events to floods and drought to altered ocean currents—is a result of global warming.

That's leading to a range of impacts, "including rising sea levels; shrinking mountain glaciers; accelerating ice melt in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic; and shifts in flower/plant blooming times," according to NASA. That, in turn, affects everything from the food we grow and eat to water availability to human migration.

Both "global warming" and "climate change" refer to average long-term phenomena and effects, whereas "weather" refers to local changes in climate "on short timescales from minutes to hours to days to weeks," such as "rain, snow, clouds, winds, thunderstorms, heat waves and floods," NASA says.

So, what about those record cold temperatures in parts of the eastern U.S. and Canada? To start, global warming is global; it doesn't refer to one specific place. While parts of North America are experiencing record cold, places like Australia are seeing record-breaking heat. Globally, the past four years have been the hottest on record, and the warmest 20 have occurred over the past 22 years.

Several studies show global warming is causing an increasing number of cold-weather events in eastern North America. "Warm temperatures in the Arctic cause the jet stream to take these wild swings, and when it swings farther south, that causes cold air to reach farther south. These swings tend to hang around for awhile, so the weather we have in the eastern United States, whether it's cold or warm, tends to stay with us longer," said Jennifer Francis, research professor of marine and coastal sciences in Rutgers' School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, who co-authored one study published in Nature Communications.

This, according to National Geographic, also means "floods last longer and droughts become more persistent." The study found that "severe winter weather is two to four times more likely in the eastern United States when the Arctic is abnormally warm than when the Arctic is abnormally cold." Winters are also colder in northern Europe and Asia when the Arctic is warm. The opposite is true in western North America, where severe winter weather is more likely "when the Arctic is colder than normal." The effects are more pronounced when Arctic warming reaches beyond the surface, causing disruptions in the stratospheric polar vortex.

Warmer temperatures can also lead to increased precipitation, which falls as snow when temperatures drop below freezing. As a Scientific American article notes, warmer temperatures in winter 2006 prevented Lake Erie from freezing for the first time in history, which "led to increased snowfalls because more evaporating water from the lake was available for precipitation."
Melting ice in the Arctic, Antarctic and on glaciers exposes land or sea, creating feedback loops, as dark surfaces absorb more solar heat than ice and snow, which reflect it. This accelerates warming.

So, no, a cold day where you live isn't evidence that global warming is a "hoax." Scientists worldwide agree: As humans continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy areas that absorb carbon dioxide, like forests and wetlands, the planet's average temperature will keep rising, with undeniable consequences for human health and survival, as well as for the biodiverse life on which we rely.

A study in Science Advances predicts extreme weather events could increase by 50 percent this century if we don't bring emissions under control. It's time to take this seriously.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Ice-rich permafrost has been exposed due to coastal erosion, National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska. Brandt Meixell / USGS


By Jake Johnson

An alarming study released Tuesday found that melting Arctic permafrost could add nearly $70 trillion to the global cost of climate change unless immediate action is taken to slash carbon emissions.

According to the new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, melting permafrost caused by accelerating Arctic warming would add close to $70 trillion to the overall economic impact of climate change if the planet warms by 3°C by 2100.

Read More Show Less
Jeff Reed / NYC Council

The New York City Council on Thursday overwhelmingly passed one of the most ambitious and innovative legislative packages ever considered by any major city to combat the existential threat of climate change.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Ghazipur is a neighborhood in East Delhi. It has been one of the largest dumping site for Delhi. India is one of many countries where global warming has dragged down economic growth. Frédéric Soltan / Corbis / Getty Images

Global inequality is worse today because of climate change, finds a new study published Monday by Stanford University professors Noah Diffenbaugh and Marshall Burke in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read More Show Less
A child playing with a ball from planet earth during Extinction Rebellion rally on April 18 in London, England. Brais G. Rouco / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

Earth Day 2019 just passed, but planning has already begun for Earth Day 2020, and it's going to be a big deal.

Read More Show Less
Geneva Vanderzeil, A Pair & A Spare / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Is your closet filled with clothes you don't wear (and probably don't like anymore)? Are you buying cheap and trendy clothing you only wear once or twice? What's up with all the excess? Shifting to a more Earth-conscious wardrobe can help simplify your life, as well as curb fast fashion's toll on people and the planet.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Christine Zenino / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Greenland is melting six times faster than it was in the 1980s, which is even faster than scientists thought, CNN reported Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
The 18th century St. Catherine of Alexandria church is seen after its bell tower was destroyed following a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck the town of Porac, pampanga province on April 23. TED ALJIBE / AFP / Getty Images

At least 16 people have died, 81 are injured and 14 are still missing after an earthquake struck Luzon island in the Philippines Monday, according to the latest figures from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, as the Philippine Star tweeted Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Climate change activists gather in front of the stage at the Extinction Rebellion group's environmental protest camp at Marble Arch in London on April 22, on the eighth day of the group's protest calling for political change to combat climate change. TOLGA AKMEN / AFP / Getty Images

Extinction Rebellion, the climate protest that has blocked major London thoroughfares since Monday April 15, was cleared from three key areas over Easter weekend, The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less