Sometimes you can’t win: More cold and snow thanks to global warming

If global warming is not simply warmer weather, but rather increasingly crazy weather, then this winter has given us ample evidence. An irony of global warming for eastern North America is it seems to be the one place that is getting colder and snowier winters thanks to global warming.

Curse you, Arctic oscillation! New York City just suffered through its coldest February since 1934, and its second-coldest month (any month) since then. Boston’s snow has been of historic proportions. And cities from Toronto and Buffalo to Bangor, Maine, recorded the coldest month in their recorded histories. On the other side of the continent, cities from Salt Lake City, Utah, to San Francisco and Seattle recorded their warmest winter months in history.

In Europe, 2014 was the hottest year on record, based on an analysis that examined temperatures going back to the 16th century, with global warming overwhelmingly the primary factor for such extremes. And, globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record, with the top 10 hottest years all occurring since 1998. There hasn’t been a year with an average global temperature below the 20th century’s average since 1976.

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Average global temperatures have steadily risen for decades (Graphic by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

But nonetheless millions of people are suffering through an extraordinarily rough winter for a second consecutive year. And it may be that shrinking ice in the Arctic Ocean is a significant factor behind the extreme winters much of the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing. The Arctic oscillation is a measure of the relative strength of the jet stream, a high-level atmospheric wind that divides polar air from temperate air. When these winds are strong, the jet stream tends not to wander north and south, bottling up frigid air in the Arctic. When those winds slacken, the jet stream develops into a wave pattern, with large movements north and south.

Those high-level winds speed up and slacken based on the differences in barometric pressure between Arctic and mid-latitude regions; a related measure, the North Atlantic oscillation, is the difference between semi-permanent low pressure near Iceland and semi-permanent high pressure near the Azores Islands. When there are significant waves, or north/south amplitudes, unusually hot or cold weather is the result, depending on which side you are on. These patterns can lock into place for weeks or sometimes months, leading to persistent extreme weather.

What is causing these patterns? Research continues, but there is an increasing amount of evidence that a warming Arctic is the culprit. The Arctic is warming faster than the globe as a whole, and the polar ice cap is shrinking as a result, which in turns causes faster warming. Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground, in a discussion of a paper by Rutgers University scientist Jennifer Francis, summarized this theory:

“[T]he extra heat in the Arctic in fall and winter over the past decade had caused the Arctic atmosphere between the surface and 500 [millibars] (about 18,000 feet or 5,600 meters) to expand. As a result, the difference in temperature between the Arctic (60 – 80°N) and the mid-latitudes (30 – 50°N) fell significantly. It is this difference in temperature that drives the powerful jet stream winds that control much of our weather. The speed of fall and winter west-to-east upper-level winds at 500 [millibars] circling the North Pole decreased by 20% over the past decade, compared to the period 1948-2000, in response to the extra warmth in the Arctic.”

So although, overall, global warming means hotter temperatures, it doesn’t mean there will never be another cold day, and sometimes it leads to counter-intuitive results. Also, there should be some perspective here. Difficult as the sustained cold has been, it is the sort of weather than once was more common. It’s less common now precisely because Earth is getting warmer.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It was cool last year in Chicago, New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego, but not in too many other places.

It does not help that the corporate media lazily misuses the concept of “neutrality” to present a false controversy, as if there is still a debate as to whether global warming is happening, or if human activity is the cause if it is. The concept of media “neutrality” is easily exploited by denialist “think tanks” (and other lavishly funded corporate fronts) that pump out reports and provide spokespeople.

Denialist groups, well funded by energy companies and other multi-national corporations concerned with their short-term profits rather than the long-term health of the planet, seek to sew doubt among the public. The manufactured split in public opinion can then be leveraged to claim there is a “controversy,” dampening the resolve necessary to tackle a problem that will ultimately threaten the habitability of the planet. Consider that the reservoirs serving South America’s biggest city, São Paulo, are going dry and scientists believe the cause of the drought is Amazon deforestation.

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Ignorance, however, is self-fulfilling — if you think you know everything, there is no need to learn anything. The global-warming denialists are following the playbook of religious fundamentalists who deny the reality of evolution by falsely claiming that a “controversy” exists in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

Those who deny evolution do no more than provide a source of amusement. The denial of a planet-wide crisis is something altogether different.


20 comments on “Sometimes you can’t win: More cold and snow thanks to global warming

  1. xraymike79 says:

    Peddling cancer-causing cigarettes to the public was one thing, but now they are playing with global disaster. The sooner we come to understand that we must change our way of life at every fundamental level, the better chance we have of salvaging some sort of existence. No one really knows when we will pass the point of no return, but many believe we already have.

  2. xraymike79 says:

    Now we have direct evidence that drought-weakened Amazonian forests ‘inhale less carbon’:

    • The news keeps getting scarier. The key conclusion from the article:

      “Researchers found that while the rate of photosynthesis was constant among trees on plots unaffected by drought, rates on the six drought-affected plots dropped significantly (as compared with before the 2010 drought). … The paper reasons that growth rates of drought-affected trees did not change, despite their limited energy supplies, because otherwise they would be at a disadvantage when competing for light, water or nutrients. But it adds that this neglect of maintenance came at a cost, and is likely to have led to the increase (up to a trebling in some sites) in numbers of trees dying in the years after the drought.”

      And that is on top of the clear-cutting that has itself drastically reduced the Amazon’s ability to act as the Earth’s lungs.

      The cartoon in your preceding comment says it all.

  3. Here in New Zealand, global warming manifests as alternating drought and torrential rain and flooding.

  4. xraymike79 says:

    Another stark reality:

    Droughts in the Amazon are speeding up climate change: ‘Lungs of the planet’ are emitting more CO2 than they capture

  5. xraymike79 says:

    Corporations and climate change: “They’ve known since 1988 there was a potential problem with the product they sold.”

    • The costs of global warming, like the costs of pollution, are externalized in capitalism. As long as the polluters don’t pay the costs of their activities, forcing taxpayers to pick up the tab, there is no chance of them taking responsibility. The magic of the market at work!

  6. Joel Meyers says:

    The questions, if any, on Global Warming has to be settled on the basis scientific method, facts and material investigation. In the political world, however, much is decided by a wing analysis, and rigid conformity thereto. To quote Nietzche, commitment is a greater enemy of the truth than are lies.

    It is true that almost all strong deniers of Global Warming politically in bed with right wingnuts, and that while Global Warming today is part of the definition of being on the Left. So with a consensus of Science that Global Warming is taking place (just about undeniable), and that it is a result of human activity and production, (which is not quite as solid, but does point to a linkage between CO2 atmospheric content and heat retention). So, on the science, I’ll take the path of least resistance and go with Global Warming on both points.

    Still, I bear in mind that only say 15,000 years ago, we emerged from an ice age, in which what is now New York City was buried under perhaps two miles of glacier. And that ice age lasted hundreds of thousands of years. With Greenland, Northern Canada, Northern Siberia and Northern Scandinavia still iced over, unlike in certain periods. Plus we are just coming out of a “Little Ice Age” that was big enough to last from the early 1300s to the middle 1800s! But here is the catch: Human-caused Global Warming is used as a sales pitch, for many reactionary agendas. For example, if human, energy-heavy industry contributes to Global Warming, then the industrial development of the colonial world stands accused as a crime against humanity, or at least against the only planet that we know sustains human life. The poor and average on the wealth scale should learn to learn that their poverty is virtue to be emulated. They, after all, numerous enough numbers to make a collective impact (China could potentially be outlawed), while the luxuriance of the tiny elite on top of the pile, the privileged classes of the privileged nations, can be looked at less damaging and more tolerable because of their small numbers.

    Many also use or are used by Global Warming to propagate that not only must the standard of living be reduced, but that the human activity fueling Global Warming is what it is because of overpopulation. That in turn can lead to a range of attitudes from historical pessimism to the idea that maybe genocide, any genocide, has a bright side to it. Hey, wait a minute, that is not progressive! Now according to the writings of Engels, the portion of “Anti-Duehring” that became known as “Socialism from Utopia to Science,” what made socialism materially possible was the potential abundance of modern industrial production, and the development of the industrial working class, the first exploited class in history capable of ruling society. But without the abundance, the competition for goods in shortage creates conflicts and breaks up the solidarity of the oppressed, and even a necessity of police to oversee distribution (abusing their power to feed themselves first, of course).

    So if that perspective is adopted, socialism goes back to an unapproachable utopia. There are those who say that through renewable energy, tidal, hydro-electric, wind-power, and some say nuclear energy generation, the real enemy, fossil fuels can be replaced, and more energy produced with general material abundance, as well as a proper spiritual climate, but that is quite controversial, another question that has to be answered by science, and only then and to that extent applied politically.

  7. Joel Meyers says:

    Oh, one more thing. One of your earlier commenters said: “The sooner we come to understand that we must change our way of life at every fundamental level, the better chance we have of salvaging some sort of existence. No one really knows when we will pass the point of no return, but many believe we already have.” Does that translate into we must have a lower standard of living or stop reproducing as much, or maybe even get rid of some already here? Probably not, but a member of the politically uninitiated majority could easily pick it up that way. So, again, Global Warming is real, but watch the agendas..

    • Much to think about in your two comments, Joel, as usual. I would begin an answer by asking what is meant by “standard of living”? If we are defining that as consumption, as a consumerist contribution to GDP, then I would say, yes, we will have to reduce our “standard of living” as currently defined. By that, I mean buying and throwing away much less junk.

      Manufacturing products that last a long time and can be re-used and re-purposed, not simply recycled, is part of this process. An end to fossil fuels and their replacement by wind, solar and other renewable sources, and reductions in our energy consumption and the adoption of products that are far more energy-efficient is also a part of a sustainable future. This would constitute a reduced “standard of living” in capitalist GDP terms, but in our everyday lives, I don’t believe it would be a reduction; without having to spend time and money continually replacing household items it might be argued this would be an improvement.

      The U.S., with four percent of the world’s population, consumes about 25 percent of the world’s resources, and the world already consumes much more than can be replaced. This is clearly not sustainable. We can’t continue to grow indefinitely on a finite planet. Capitalism is simply not sustainable, and when a capitalist economy is not growing at a significant rate, stagnation, recession and even depression is the result, as the world has been experiencing for several years.

      The world’s level of productive capacity and technology is such that there is more than enough abundance for a socialist economy, the basis of which, as you said, is that there is enough for everybody. A steady-state economy, or one that shrinks as the population declines (through a natural reduction in birth rates as is already the case in most of the world’s advanced capitalist countries), is not possible under capitalism, but such an economy must be in place if humanity is not to render Earth uninhabitable. So, as Rosa Luxemburg said a century ago, it’s socialism or barbarism.

      • Joel Meyers says:

        The measures, practices and reforms you suggest can, be implemented only through workers states, if not socialism with an economy based on cooperative, global planning. Otherwise, for example, capitalist competition would rationalize production of long-lasting goods in the durable sphere, which would be cheaper in the long run over their life-cycles, and could undersell the more “disposable” goods. But, with monopolization dominant, avoiding such savings creates a higher turnaround, and planned obsolescence is the rule. This is applied not only industrially, but even in food production, where seeds are for one seedless crop only.

        The agendas being promoted under capitalism are for permanent recession/depression, less and lower quality life necessities for the 99%, leading to shorter and more brutish lives. Not only the major corporations and banks fall into that agenda, but the capitalist state is under effectively one-way pressure to shorten the life-span, so as to save expenditures on Social Security and Medicare, etc.

        Obama administration healthcare philosophers Ezekiel Emanuel have written, modern medicine violates its do-no-harm pledge when it prolongs life beyond sustainable limits, with Emanuel, presenting himself as the role model wishing to die at 75 years or sooner (Atlantic Monthly, Oct. 2014). Former Gov. Lamb of Colorado put it most succinctly: “People have to learn to die on time.” Someone called the capitalist state “an insurance company with an army.” “Socialism or Barbarism” has become “Socialism or Extinction”.

  8. matt says:

    This article is in error in saying that only the eastern US saw record cold and snow. That is not true. Capracotta, Italy received 100 inches of snow in just 18 hours, and we had a blizzard on the Big Island here in Hawaii just yesterday!

    Back in 2000 the global warming Carbonazis were screaming that snow was a thing of the past. But, they cannot admit they were wrong about human-caused global warming without losing their reputations and funding, and science has a long history of promoting major goofs for long periods of time, rather than admit error.

    Alchemy, for one.

    Phlogiston Chemistry, for another.

    Prior to the 14th Century Astronomers thought the Earth was the center of the universe, because, well, that’s what the church wanted, and spent hundreds of years of scientific research on the theory of Epicycles; which holds the record for longest running scientific goof!

    17th Century doctors thought rubbing chicken dung into your scalp would cure baldness! They also thought leeches sucked disease out of patients.

    18th Century Geologists thinking the Earth was 6000 years old, because, well, that’s what the church wanted!

    … [this goes on and on in the same vein; I’ll save readers the burden of reading more of this —sd]

    • You’ve made the common error of global-warming denialists of confusing weather with climate. Sure, a high-elevation part of Italy had a big snowstorm. So what? Europe as a whole had its warmest year ever in 2014, and every year since 1998 has been above the long-term average. One day or one storm means nothing in a climatic context. Nor it is unusual for the tops of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea in Hawaii to receive snow.

      Once again, a warming climate does not there will never be another cold day nor that there will be no more snow. In fact, a warming climate, for now, should lead to bigger snowstorms because warmer air can hold more moisture than can colder air.

      Here’s another example: The hottest day in Los Angeles history was September 27, 2010, at 113 degrees. Yet Los Angeles had its second-coolest summer on record in 2010. At the same time, at least 15 U.S. cities recorded their hottest summer on record that year, Moscow had by far its worst heat wave in its history, and that summer was, at the time, the hottest on record for Earth as a whole. So we could cherry-pick Los Angeles’ summer and say the world is cooling. But that would be obviously wrong; it was a local, short-term phenomenon.

      I refer you to the graphic of the planet’s warming temperatures in my main post above; although it is reasonable to debate the precise ratios of various human activity that is causing global warming, that humans are responsible is no more in dispute than that Earth is not flat. And using Russ Limbaugh-type language will get you nowhere — someone who uses such language forfeits all credibility at the start. Nor will pointing out what people thought in the Middle Ages; the modern scientific method did not exist then so the comparison is absurd.

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