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Yes, It’s Cold, and Yes, the Climate Is Still Changing

Yes, It’s Cold, and Yes, the Climate Is Still Changing

Tell me if you’re tired of hearing this line: “Hey, smartypants, if the planet is heating up, how come this winter has been so cold?!” In the wake of the polar vortex, torrential rain and flooding in areas as far-flung as England and New Zealand, and a grinding winter that’s leading people to make jokes about the White Witch, people who aren’t familiar with the science behind climate change are claiming that recent weather conditions disprove the very well-supported theory of global climate trends. If you’re grinding your teeth every time you hear them, we’ve got some arguments to help you out.

1. Climate is not weather

Climate is about complex overall trends and average patterns. A rainy Wednesday isn’t “climate,” it’s just weather. Climate scientists look at precipitation, temperatures, humidity, wind patterns, atmospheric pressure, airborne particulates, and a variety of other factors to measure large, systemic trends. They also look not just regionally, but globally. Their work includes monitoring ongoing weather conditions but they also look back over historic records, and they use cool tools like analyzing tree rings for insight into historic climate conditions as well as taking a close look at paintings for information about how the weather looked hundreds of years ago.

2. The Earth just experienced its fourth warmest January on record

While Northern Hemispherans might have been freezing, in Australia, people were suffering with record temperatures in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and even in California, things were pretty toasty: the state had the warmest winter ever recorded. (California also notably experienced extreme drought conditions in January, a far cry from the usual endless rain the northern part of the state experiences during the month.) Remember that climate change is about averages, not single data points, so the fact that it was unusually cold (or hot) in one specific place isn’t as important as overall trends.

3. Sounds weird, but more snow = warmer climate

Say what? Yes, really. Here’s how it works: because heat can’t make its way out to space as a result of gases in the atmosphere, the Earth is getting warmer (“global warming,” one aspect of climate change). Heat increases humidity as water evaporates from warming oceans, and all that trapped moisture in the air has to precipitate out. If you were in England this year, you saw it in the form of rain. If you were in an area where temperatures dropped extremely low, like the Eastern Seaboard, you witnessed endless snow. Even though you might have been cold, the planet wasn’t.

4. Guess what: This winter wasn’t actually that cold

Residents of the East Coast might cry foul here, but it’s true. These brutal winters are actually among average values historically — they just feel colder because in recent years, winters have been abnormally warm. Think about it this way: lukewarm water feels cold if you’ve just been dipping your fingers in hot water.

Remember that climate change is about shifts in climate patterns. While people may argue about the cause, there’s ample evidence to show that the planet’s climate is changing, and that this change is historic in terms of its unprecedented speed, and potentially devastating. We rely on a very narrow range of average temperatures to live in comfort. A few degrees can make a difference between a catastrophically high elevation in sea levels, crop failures and other pressures that will make life on Earth very uncomfortable for all of us.

The situation has become so dire that NASA, a normally pretty staid government agency, has warned of “irreversible collapse” across industrial civilizations on Earth unless we act fast to correct climate change and a host of chained issues, including water availability and pressure on agriculture, among others.

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Photo credit: Jason.

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182 comments

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11:25AM PDT on Jun 15, 2014

It's math even a five year can understand. You pump 20+ billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere yearly beyond the 20 billion tons that earth's combined ocean and land biosystems can absorb, you've got 20+ billion tons that has to go somewhere. And it does, it enters the upper atmosphere, and stays up there for an average of 100 years. Worse it accumulates and triggers the release of more CO2 (and methane which is a time bomb for climate change) that has been locked up for eons in oceans, ice and water.

11:23AM PDT on Jun 15, 2014

Stop burning coal (and the dirtiest oil, like Canadian tar sands). Coal production worldwide amounts to a whopping 40% of global warming. Greedy and criminal humans won't do that they will continue to act insanely and bicker until they're dead.

5:06PM PDT on Apr 12, 2014

I'm not interested in arguing if it's getting warmer or colder, because at least in my part of the Midwest, it appears to be doing both at the same time -- significantly colder winters, and much hotter and drier summers. Whether you want to stand on one or other other sides of the argument on temperatures, the undeniable fact is that storms are becoming more virulent and more often, animals are acting strange, and crops and the pollinators we need to keep them growing are dying. So SOMETHING, or a lot of small somethings, need to be done now.

8:38AM PDT on Apr 2, 2014

The evidence for man-made climate change is worldwide and undeniable. But solid facts never bother right-wing cultists, who just parrot back the party line from those profiting from the causes of climate change.

3:59PM PDT on Mar 31, 2014

Climate change is killing all of us !

5:02AM PDT on Mar 30, 2014

Wonder.,
Where are you? The thinking here in the U.S. us for a mild start to summer, based on the prolonged snow and cold.

4:42AM PDT on Mar 30, 2014

I know this summer is gonna be unimaginably hot!

5:37PM PDT on Mar 29, 2014

Louise d.,
Part of the problem us the media in this country. They think there is only two sides to any issue, and global warming is no exception. When it is hot, they look for someone to quote who will say this is evidence of global warming, and we must act now. When it is cold, they look for someone else who will say this shows global warming is bunk, and there is nothing to worry about. Neither of these extremes know much about climate or global warming.

3:12PM PDT on Mar 29, 2014

Every time there is an article about climate change the denial brigade uses the same argumentum ex culo tactics which usually go around a personal attack about Al Gore , climategate and pretty concrete evidence that they are ignorant tossers with big opinions and no knowledge on the matter. There is a basic misunderstanding of climate that suggests they think that weather is climate in much the same way that bull shit is a prime steak. The polar Vortex in America resulted in a wet winter in Europe and a series of crap summers which should be once in a century events occurring every couple of years. It may be considered naive to consider that this is something that could be changed by a concerted effort however the politicians increasingly more iin the pockets of the various corporations whose actions have contributed to climate change combined with an increasing level of distrust in intellectualism in Conservative circles has resulted in the situation of that humanity is going to go into a dark age which was preventable due to greed, now where did this happen before?

2:46AM PDT on Mar 29, 2014

ty

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