A record-breaking cold snap is relentlessly descending on parts of the U.S. this month. In a time when climate change is discussed in the context of record highs, droughts, and wildfires, cold weather and blizzards can seem out of place. For those who deny that climate change is happening, it’s an opportunity to undermine scientific consensus.
How do you explain a cold winter in a world that scientists say is getting hotter?
First, it’s important to understand the difference between climate and weather. Climate is defined as the average weather patterns in a region over a long period of time. Each of these climate regions experiences day-to-day fluctuations in temperature, precipitation, air pressure, and so on—daily variations known as weather.
When the term “global warming” was popularized a few decades ago, it referred to the phenomenon of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the average temperature of the planet. Though record high temperatures in many places have been one impact of this decades-long shift, scientists now understand that an atmosphere changed by rising levels of gases like carbon and methane leads to more climate changes than just warming. Scientists believe Earth will experience more extreme, disastrous weather as the effects of climate change play out.
In response to President Trump’s January 20 tweet about cold temperatures, Potsdam University physicist Stefan Rahmstorf noted on Twitter that, while North America was experiencing cold Arctic air, the rest of the world was abnormally hot. And, the polar vortex bringing that cold air to the U.S. may actually become increasingly unstable, Rahmstorf noted. As more Arctic air flows into southern regions, North America can expect to see harsher winters. That was the conclusion of a study published in 2017 in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Record cold temperatures and blizzards aren’t the only extreme weather patterns expected… floods [will] last longer and droughts become more persistent. One study published in Science Advances last October predicted extreme, deadly weather events could increase by as much as 50 percent by 2100. Scientists have already found climate change contributed to California’s historic, deadly wildfires and powerful, destructive hurricanes.