Cold, hard science: climate change and the polar vortex

Image credit: Parade Magazine

[dropcap style=”inverted”]H[/dropcap]aving just gotten through one of the most extreme winter storms in recent memory, and with another so-called ‘Polar Vortex’ apparently just around the corner, cold weather is fact fresh in the minds of students at Purdue. Indeed, much of North America is in the midst of one of the coldest winters in 20 years, with temperatures in some areas dropping to a frigid 50 below zero with wind chill. Across America, cities shut down as millions of people were forced to stay in their homes.

This being the case, the extreme cold has also brought a question to many people’s minds: what happened to global warming? Such low temperatures wouldn’t seem to fit with the concept of a warming world. This is especially contentious in places like Purdue, with its heavy emphasis on conservation and sustainability. For any honor student with experience of the University’s lecture series on the subject, it is obvious that environmentalism and global warming are major concerns for Purdue. But isn’t it rather silly to be concerned with this in the face of weather which is, quite spectacularly, not warm?

This subject has been a major talking point in political and media circles in recent weeks, with many writers, pundits, and politicians expressing skepticism over the existence of global warming thanks to the cold snap. The fact that at a Russian research ship carrying climate change scientists was stuck in thick sea ice off the coast of Antarctica this last Christmas didn’t help matters. Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Similar public doubts were raised in 2009 after the end of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference was cut off by a blizzard, or when the same thing happened to a high-profile American climate change rally in March of that year.

[pullquote_left]This is for the same reason that Hurricane Sandy or the 2012 Midwest Drought don’t prove global warming either: weather isn’t the climate.[/pullquote_left]

So what is the deal with all of this cold weather? Does it really disprove global warming? The answer of course, is no. This is because of the same reason that Hurricane Sandy or the 2012 Midwest Drought don’t prove global warming either: weather isn’t the climate. Global warming doesn’t imply an end to winter as we know it because it isn’t that local of a trend. By its very nature, climate change is global and long-term. It’s still very possible for there to be cold weather while the overall temperature trend is upwards.

What’s important to remember is that the United States only makes up 2% of the Earth’s surface. Right now, for example, Australia is going through an unprecedented heat wave which has smashed records and brought the nation its highest recorded temperatures in over a century of record-keeping. By the same logic applied to the Polar Vortex, this should prove that global warming does exist. So which statement is correct? Does the heat wave in Australia prove climate change or does the North American winter disprove it?

Of course, neither view is correct. To say that any one event is proof for or against climate change is to misunderstand what climate change really refers to. Regardless of the global average temperature, extreme heat and extreme cold will still persist. The important thing to look at is the overall trend. In many ways, it is the same principle as watching a baseball player on steroids. It’s impossible to pick out a single homerun and claim that it wouldn’t have happened without the steroids. What matters is that the player hits more homeruns overall than before.

So what is the overall trend? According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 2013 is likely to place in the top ten of the warmest years on record. If this is the case, then all of the top ten warmest years have happened since 1998. On top of this, the WMO also named the 2001-2010 period the warmest decade on record, with numerous climate extremes mentioned along the way. Similar conclusions have been reached by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the UK MET Office, and other organizations. This being the case, the overall trend is not really a point of contention.

One important lesson from this is that human intuition does not always match up with scientific observation. The fact that it is cold or warm outside gives us very little insight into what a system as large and complex as the Earth’s climate is actually doing, and it would be dangerous to think that it does. No fact in science has ever been proven through a single experience, and letting these stall the conversation only guarantees that no solution will ever be found at all.

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