The majority of our Christmas breaks this year were spent shovelling, slipping and freezing all the while cursing Mother Nature, but what do these frigid temperatures and “weather bomb” storms tell us about our changing planet?
From Tallahassee, Florida, to Quebec City and Winnipeg to Halifax, most of the Central and Eastern parts of the US and Canada were experiencing extreme winter weather. Many, including US President Donald Trump, were quick to seize the unseasonably cold weather as proof that climate change does not exist. In a tweet on New Years Eve, President Trump wrote: “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming”, in response to the record low temperatures. However, others, especially environmentalists and those in the scientific community, believe that these weather phenomena stem from global warming itself.
It is believed that one cause of this cold snap was an alteration in the jet stream or polar vortex. Cold winds usually swirl around the North pole, but increasingly often, frigid air is filtering down south. Some scientists attribute this weakening to the loss of Arctic Sea ice, caused by climate change. Open, warmer water is thus created. Consequently, energy is released into the atmosphere, which alters the polar vortex. A study by Marlene Kretschmer and Judah Cohen, both climate researchers, showed that the length of extreme cold stretches went from 5.3 days on average in the first part of the study to 14.1 days in the second half. The study concluded that the polar vortex is at the root of this increase in cold snaps. However, the scientific community is divided over this issue and many have concluded that more research is required to figure out why the polar vortex is weakening and what effect it will have on our weather.
The jet stream is the also the force responsible for creating high pressure “ridges” of heat and low pressure “troughs” of cold. During this past Christmas break, the Eastern half of North America was in one of these frigid troughs, while the Western half experienced hot, dry weather, due to a strong ridge. This varied jet stream is caused by a diminishing difference between the ocean temperatures in the Arctic and Pacific, as the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the planet.
In addition to extreme cold, exceptional snowfall was recorded all across the East and into the Midwest and South. In regions near large lakes, such as Erie, Pennsylvania, where an astonishing five and a half plus feet fell in three days, lake effect snow is often to blame. When cold Arctic air meets the relatively warm water, extra moisture is released into the atmosphere, which over the cold land turns into snow. This adds to the moisture already contained in the clouds, dumping even more snow onto nearby land. Lake effect snow is a natural occurrence, but increased lake temperatures and higher prevalence of open water later into the winter, have amplified it. Both these factors are caused by climate change and the rising of the Earth’s temperature.
As well, powerful cyclones and “nor’easters” such as Superstorm Sandy in 2012 or the recent “weather bomb” will be more and more common if our planet continues to warm at its current rate. An increase in temperature creates warmer tropical waters in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, even late in November and December, which creates massive storms. These storms, hurricanes in fact, douse rain, produce heavy winds and storm surges. As they move north up the Atlantic coast, however, they begin to take on more blizzard-like characteristics, such as intense snowfall, frigid winds and ice.
Besides the need to slow down climate change, by reducing our emissions, consuming less and living more sustainable lives, little action can be taken to protect ourselves from extreme cold weather. Precautions such as wearing warm clothing, staying in heated buildings and having winter tires can combat hypothermia and weather-related accidents, but there is little we can do to prepare ourselves for super storms. Infrastructure must be up to code, especially in vulnerable areas and there must be equipment to handle this weather, but these are only temporary fixes, and they cost money. Rebuilding, cancelling, refunding, repaving, saving also costs money. The sums put forth to help cool our planet may seem considerable, but they are miniscule compared to the damage, and cost, that continued extreme weather will have on our cities and societies. It has become more and more clear that a warming planet doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all hot all the time. If anything, the past month has proven the contrary. We will bounce from extreme to extreme, until it we learn to live in tune with our planet, or we will be destroyed.