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Does this year's cold and snow mean the climate is or isn't changing?

Posted by David Epstein  January 28, 2014 02:10 PM

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Another very wintry week is underway for much of the eastern 2/3rds of the United States with the arctic cold pushing its way south through the heart of America and down the Gulf Coast. Atlanta Snow today.jpgThere are winter storm warnings from Louisiana to North Carolina and a major snowstorm is looking increasingly likely for areas that can go years without seeing a flake. This same storm will clip southern New England with a few inches of snow across Cape Cod and the Islands late tonight and early Wednesday. The cold begins to moderate towards the weekend.

We donít know yet the final numbers on the winter of 2013-2014, but suffice to say it will go into the record books as a cold and snowy one for much of the nation.

What does it mean?
Humans love to try to draw conclusions about everything and it can be tempting to do so about this winter and the reasons why itís been so cold. There are predictable patterns for this seasonís cold we understand. These include the position of the jet stream, the now famous polar vortex, a cooling Pacific ocean, a less active sun and other meteorological indices like the Arctic oscillation. Additionally, there are other climatological and meteorological factors in play.

I'd love to hear you opinion on the topic. Follow me on Twitter @growingwisdom.

As a scientist, I try to read as much as I possibly can about those topics that interest me. As you might expect, these include weather, climate, gardening, conservation, technology and sociology. This year, it frustrates me to see some individuals and the media using our cold winter as ďproofĒ of a lack of a changing climate. Equally as exacerbating are those who report the arctic blasts as examples of how climate change is responsible for the bitter cold readings. Neither of these is truth. Simplistically, I could write, the reason itís cold this year is because itís winter and winter brings cold weather. Some winters are milder than others and this year, similar to the winter of 1917 and those in the late 70s, itís cold. Whatís more, although itís been a frigid month, itís not the kind of cold the eastern half of the country saw back in January of 1977. During that month, my grandfather called me from Palm Beach to say he was brushing snow flurries off his car. The flurries even extended into Miami.
January 1977.png
As frigid as January 2014 may turn out, it wonít rival the one 37 years ago. That fact is nothing more than a data point.

Human influence
I suspect, though itís impossible to prove, if humans didnít exist and everything else was the same, it would still be cold this winter. I might argue the cold for some area would be much worse if people didnít exist. I can say with confidence, if a city wasnít present where Boston is, and there was still a swampy marsh in the Back Bay, it would be frozen solid. I would also be comfortable saying those of you who live in any area with significant buildings, roads, concrete, and other man-made structures would have experienced even colder temperatures this winter without those objects, as those objects give off heat. This is called the heat island effect and is likely some of the reason Boston continues to no longer regularly see temperatures below zero. Some scientists believe the observed warming of the cities has weighted too heavily into the global calculation of temperature, but most agree the effects to be statistically insignificant.

Looking ahead
There are all sorts of scenarios about what future winters will be like as the climate continues to change. The scenarios run the gamut from seeing Maineís future climate similar to the Carolinas of today. Others predict smaller and more gradual changes over the next century. Some scientists even believe the entire concept of anthropogenic warming is without merit. The chart below shows various predicted scenarios for the Earthís temperature. Most of the time, but not all, the media uses the worst case scenarios and observations and neglects to mention there isnít one forecast for the future climate. Itís also critical to remember these are only based on computer projections. What you see below are projected changes in global average temperature under three no-policy emissions scenarios. The shaded areas show the likely ranges while the lines show the central projections from a set of climate models. A wider range of model types shows outcomes from 2 to 11.5įF. Changes are relative to the 1960-1979 average.
Climate change predictions.jpg

Source: USGCRP 2009

Exploration of ideas
I read a blog yesterday called the Quadrant Online and I found the authorís, (Garth Paltride) perspective worth passing on. One of the paragraphs, which most resonated with me follows:

ďThe chances of proving that climate change over the next century will be large enough to be disastrous are virtually nil. For the same reason, the chances of a climate skeptic, or anyone else for that matter, proving the disaster theory to be oversold are also virtually nil. To that extent there is a level playing field for the two sides of the argument. The problem is that climate research necessarily involves enormous resources, and is a game for institutions and organizations. Skepticism is an occupation for individuals. Things being as they are in the climate-change arena, skepticism by an individual within the system can be fairly career-limiting. In any event, most individual scientists have a conscience, and are reluctant to put their heads above the public parapet in order to propound a view of things that may be inherently improvable.Ē

Back in 1979 the then director of the Woods Hole Institution here in Massachusetts wrote a short piece in Newsweek about the future state of global warming. You can read the article below.
Climate Change Nov 19th 1979.jpg

Climate change temperatures.png

Has the warming stopped?
Whatís interesting from the article is Spencer's prediction of ďa degree and a half or soĒ of warming by the mid-90s. The reality is, not only did that prediction not happen, we havenít seen a temperature rise of that level in the 35 years since the article was published. Additionally, the warming pace observed during the1980s and 1990s has been on a 15 year hiatus. Put another way, global temperatures since the turn of this century have all been equally warm. This is why each year keeps being reported as ďone of the warmest on recordĒ. Since nearly all of the past 15 years have been warmer than the long term average, they are all close to the record. Hereís another way to look at this. If the stock market drops 10 points off the high for the year, itís still ďclose to record territoryĒ. If the market stays within a few points of the high for the next decade, itís still ďin record territoryĒ, but most investors wouldnít have made very much money during that time.
latest trends in climate change.png
Will the warming resume in the next few years? Climatologists canít be sure, but most agree it will resume and perhaps even accelerate. The sensitivity of the entire system is still hotly debated. If we knew the exact affects of the CO2 humans put into the atmosphere we wouldnít have all these different scenarios and predicted outcomes would be much closer to the observed state of the atmosphere.

The fact the prognosis back in 1979 hasnít come true doesnít mean the climate isnít warming nor does it mean the human contribution to any warming isnít real; it does show hypothesis should be subject to revision. We live a time of such polarized ideas, itís impossible to critically explore climate change without being giving a label. Iím sure some of you will blast me in the comments section for even suggesting any alternative views of the conventional wisdom du jour. I hope most of you will see the exploratory theme of this blog, not any attempt to mandate a view or policy.

Alternative energy
We donít know what we donít know yet either. Research continues to move forward to mass produce hydrogen fuel cells for cars. The only byproduct of these cars is water vapor, not carbon dioxide. Hereís an interesting fact. Water vapor is actually a bigger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The atmosphere has about 30,000 times as much water vapor as CO2. Some researchers believe we have to be careful not to trade the reported CO2 issue for a water vapor one while other researchers believe since the water vapor wonít make it to the stratosphere it wonít matter.

If anthropogenic water vapor did actually cause more planetary warming, it would bring an entirely new meaning to the saying itís not the heat itís the humidity.

For millions of people across the country this winter has been cold and snowy. For millions of others this has been a warm and dry winter the likes of which havenít been seen in many decades. The weather seems extreme, yet much of what we observe has been observed before. How daily, monthly and yearly weather patterns are influenced by known and unknown future climatic shifts are still subject to interpretation, research and debate. The chaotic noise of weather occurs inside the equally chaotic variables affecting climate and the climate itself. Itís not only responsible to question the interplay of these variables, itís irresponsible not to.
Remember, you can follow me on Twitter @growingwisdom. I welcome your thoughts and ideas on weather, climate and horticulture or anything else of interest.

Articles
Keith, D.W., and A.E. Farrell, 2003a: Rethinking hydrogen cars. Science, 301, 315-316.
Keith, D.W., and A.E. Farrell, 2003b: Rethinking hydrogen cars - Response. Science, 302, 1329.
Pielke, R.A., Jr., R. Klein, G. Maricle, and T. Chase, 2003: Letter to the Editor - Hydrogen cars and water vapor. Science, 302, 1329.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

David Epstein has been a professional meteorologist and horticulturalist for three decades. David spent 16 years at WCVB in Boston and currently freelances for WGME in Portland, ME. In 2006, More »
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