Cold Questions

It May Be Winter, But Climate Change Hasn’t Gone Anywhere
There’s nothing like a good bout of winter weather, preferably with icy chill and buckets of snow, to bring the global warming deniers out of the woodwork. Granted, some folks don’t experience much in the way of bracing cold, even in January. But they, like the rest of us, are likely no less immune to the snickering. The suggestion that cold winters and increasing snowfall in some regions somehow negates global warming and the warnings of climate scientists that the globe’s temperature is increasing at alarming rates has been with us for a while. Here’s why it doesn’t hold water.

There’s a difference between weather and climate. Weather tells you what the temperature and conditions are in recent days, weeks and months. Climate tells you the atmosphere’s average temperature over the long-term. Writes NASA on their website: “When we talk about climate change, we talk about changes in the long-term averages of daily weather. Today, children always hear stories from their parents and grandparents about how snow was always piled up to their waists as they trudged off to school. Children today in most areas of the country haven’t experienced those kinds of dreadful snow-packed winters, except for the Northeastern U.S. in January 2005. The change in recent winter snows indicate that the climate has changed since their parents were young.”

It’s possible, in other words, that we may have lived long enough to have experienced the impacts of climate change ourselves. Lots of folks have expressed sadness at the fact that it’s rarely cold enough to skate outdoors in winter any more, even in Canada. Professional skiers and snowboarders have lamented the very noticeable loss of snow on favorite slopes worldwide. E wrote about many of these climate change effects (impacting everyone from dogsledders to maple syrup producers) in its feature “Losing Winter” in 2008. Still, many may, right now, be experiencing a particularly cold or snowy winter, or enjoying extra powder at the ski slopes. It would be great if that were an indication that the climate had fixed itself—but it’s not.

On the Rise

When the long-term picture is assessed, there’s no doubt that the earth is on a warming trajectory. The average temperature for the last five years is higher than for the previous five years; and the 10 warmest years have all happened between 1997 and 2008. Writes the Pew Center on Global Climate Change: “Even with a short-term pause in warming, the past three years are among the ten hottest years of the past 150!” Even if the climate did, inexplicably, start getting cooler, it wouldn’t be enough to immediately declare global warming a worry of the past. We’ve had those cool bouts before. In fact, the Pew site reports: “Scientists at the U.S. National Climatic Data Center found that over the past 34 years, three separate roughly 10-year periods had no warming, yet during the entire period the global average temperature rose by about 1°F.” The whole rundown of global warming realities vs. misconceptions on their site is a worthwhile read.

In fact, instead of the cold, snowy winter, think of the number of catastrophic storms on the rise. Those are directly related to warmer atmospheric temperatures. Already, thanks in large part to manmade emissions, we’ve driven the planet’s temperature up more than a degree and a half Fahrenheit. That’s enough, writes Bill McKibben is his book Eaarth (Times Books), to cause thunderheads over the ocean to increase by 45%, leading to major torrential rainfalls, hailstorms and lightning storms. Those increased storms—no matter what our local weather report—are pretty tough to miss.