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Extreme winter storms aren’t inconsistent with global warming and will continue for decades, expert says

David Knowles
·Editor
·5 min read
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The massive winter storm that buried much of the United States in snow this week bringing record-setting cold across the plains and knocking out the power grid in Texas is not inconsistent with climate change, a leading expert told Yahoo News.

“We haven’t had enough warming to eliminate cold events, and we shouldn’t expect to have enough warming to eliminate cold events in the mid-latitudes for some time,” Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University, said in phone interview on Tuesday.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, global temperatures have risen by just over one degree Celsius, enough to significantly alter weather events, but certainly not enough to put an end to winter storms.

“When we look out at projections for the climate warming three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels or four degrees compared to the one degree that we’ve already had, the mid-latitudes can still expect to experience severe cold, even at those high levels of global warming,” Diffenbaugh said. “The bottom line is that not only are extreme cold events not inconsistent with the one degree of warming that we’ve already had, we can expect them to continue in the foreseeable future.”

Climate change skeptics often cite winter weather as proof that global warming either isn’t real or that its severity is nothing to fear. In February 2015, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., famously brought a snowball onto the floor of the U.S. Senate to illustrate his point that because it was cold outside, climate change fears were overblown.

A pedestrian
A pedestrian navigating a snow-covered sidewalk in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Since Inhofe’s presentation, the six warmest years on record have been recorded and 189 nations signed on to the Paris climate agreement, which aims to curb carbon dioxide emissions and keep temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. While former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in November, President Biden signed an order in January to rejoin it.

While climate scientists often warn against confusing climate, which is the average daily weather trends for a certain location, with weather, which consists of the short-term atmospheric conditions, a growing body of research is making global warming’s impact clear.

“Our climate change present is that we are already in a climate that has changed significantly and that the change of one degree Celsius has already been enough to increase the frequency and severity of many different kinds of many different kinds of extreme events,” Diffenbaugh said. “We see this very clearly in extreme hot events, where our research has shown that the probability of record setting hot events has already increased by more than 80 percent of the global surface area. For extreme wet events and extreme dry events, in terms of high and low precipitation, that number is about 50 percent — we’ve already seen increases in probability in about half of the globe so far.”

In the West, a longer wildfire season due to warmer temperatures is perhaps the starkest example of climate change’s threat.

“We see similar increases in wildfire risk, both within areas like the western United States, where the area burned has increased by a factor of 10 in the last four decades. Around half of that increase in area burn is associated with the effect of long-term warming fuel. The frequency of extreme wildfire weather days has more than doubled in the last four decades.”

Vehicles on I-40
Vehicles on I-40 in Nashville. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

In other parts of the country, other dangers have become more prominent.

“Storm-surge flooding has increased substantially as a result on sea-level rise. Superstorm Sandy, for instance, that caused so much damage in New York,” Diffenbaugh said. “Sea-level rise has increased the severity of storm-surge flooding by about 20 percent and has just about tripled the probability of that flood extent.”

Studies undertaken after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston, dumping a record 60 inches of rain, have shown that climate change was a significant factor.

“We have clear evidence that the increased water vapor in the air has increased the intensity of participation for a given landfalling tropical cyclone,” Diffenbaugh said. “So there are many, many, many ways in which the climate is already extreme.”

Diffenbaugh also points to studies showing that increased moisture in the atmosphere has been shown to result in higher snowfall amounts for storms on the East Coast, and notes that a growing body of research suggests that climate change is altering the path of the jet stream, sometimes causing Arctic air to plunge onto the lower 48 states.

What is unclear, however, is whether climate change is making winter storms like this week’s blizzard more severe. That’s because climate systems are highly complex and based on myriad factors.

“Whether or not that warming alters the atmosphere and ocean and sea ice in a way that increases the probability of extreme cold is a matter that continues to be a very active area of research,” Diffenbaugh said.

While further research is needed to establish the counterintuitive conclusion that global warming may actually make winter storms more ferocious, Diffenbaugh has no doubt that winter blasts are far from a thing of the past.

“The issue on the effect of global warming on extreme cold, again, the strongest evidence is that we should continue to expect extreme cold within the context of the warming that’s already happened and will happen in the coming decades.”

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