Warming Climate And Cold Days Explained

Warming Climate And Cold Days Explained

KANSAS CITY, MO – JANUARY 13: A view of the frozen field as the grounds crew removes the tarp in the … [+] brutal cold before an AFC Wild Card playoff game between the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs on Jan 13, 2024 at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins played in brutally cold conditions Saturday night. The Buffalo Bills game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed until at least Monday due lake effect snow. I am writing this piece on a particulary chilly Sunday morning in Georgia. Scrolling through social media on cold or snowy days, it is common to see comments like, “well so much for global warming” or “Ha, I have 10 inches of climate change in my yard.” When I see such statements, a blaring science literacy siren with accompanying flashing lights comes to mind. I have written on this topic before, but another quick refresher on warming climate and cold days is always needed.

The cause of seasons


The “Captain Obvious” point to make is that we are in the midst of winter. We will always have winter even as our climate continues to warm. The National Weather Service website offers a succinct but effective explanation of what causes seasons. It points out, “The earth’s spin axis is tilted with respect to its orbital plane. This is what causes the seasons….When the earth’s axis points away, winter can be expected.” For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere right now, we are tilted away from the sun and receive less directly sunlight. To visualize this, simply imagine tilting a flashlight beam at an angle on a table rather than straight down.

The Polar Vortex explained


Ok, we have established that winter will always happen. That means we will always have cold days and snow storms. Now let’s discuss something else that people get wrong. The Polar Vortex is portrayed as this ominous “thing” that comes to get us periodically. I see it in headlines or social media posts all of the time.

The current cold snap associated with the aforemetioned NFL game and my current discomfort is associated with extremely cold air oozing into the United States. The Polar Vortex is a ribbon of strong winds found in the stratosphere over the polar region. It’s pretty much always there and is not some storm or “Arctic hurricane” coming to cause havoc. With cold snaps like this one, there is a disruption in the Polar Vortex, which allows colder high latitude air to make its way into the U.S. A weakened or disrupted Polar Vortex allows lobes of colder air to be displaced southward (see graphic above).

Near surface temperature anomalies on January 14th, 2024. Extremely cold air is evident in much of … [+] the U.S.

Climate Change Institute and University of Maine

While not settled science yet, there are studies which suggest that climate warming is causing more Polar Vortex disruptions and that jet streams are becoming more “wavy.” For more information, the Yale Climate Communication offers a sound discussion on the topic. Dr. Judah Cohen also provides current assessments on the Polar Vortex at his blog site. On January 8th he wrote, “A relatively minor perturbation of the polar vortex (PV) where it stretches out like a rubber band is bringing colder temperatures to Western Canada and the Western US that will move east with time.” Welp, it’s here Judah.

Trends in global surface temperature and the presence of El Niño.


So that is weather. I always say, “Weather is your mood, climate is your personality.” The weather on a given day or week does not describe the broader background climate changes. Your mood today does not describe your personality. You honestly might just be having a bad day, right? Most credible sources have reported, using different datasets or approaches, that 2023 was the warmest year on record. NOAA’s annual global climate report states, “The year 2023 was the warmest year since global records began in 1850 at 1.18°C (2.12°F) above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F).” This value surpasses 2016, and the report goes on to say, “The 10 warmest years in the 174-year record have all occurred during the last decade (2014–2023).” During El Niño years, the climate warming is typically given a boost.

While speaking at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater recently, I asked the audience, “Have you noticed that it is breaking news when it gets cold in winter?” In part, the number of extremely cold outbreaks have generally declined compared to the previous century. In fact, the Fifth National Climate Assessment reports, “….Arctic air, while still cold in absolute terms, is warmer than it used to be four decades ago.” Record high temperature days outpace record cold days, and the number of extreme cold days is declining.

In summary, yes we have cold days, and yes climate warming is happening too. Bundle up today.

Extreme cold days are declining in the U.S., particulary in the West.

NOAA and EPA Website

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