Will Global Warming Freeze Us to Death??

I’m writing this from our camp up north, my wife and I came here partly to experience -20F temps with 25 mph winds pushing the wind chill towards -50F. It’s hard to experience this kind of cold in lower 48. It’s the death zone in terms of survival, unless you’re cozy inside….

Of course, as a scientist interested in these things, I can’t help but think about climate change and global warming in this context. After one of, or perhaps the most intense cold spell, I can recall (going back to the late ‘60s) in Maine, it’s tempting to say, global warming, what a bunch of hooey. At least that’s what the thrice married golf course impresario, failed for-profit university president, failed professional football league instigator, failed casino owner from Manhattan who currently resides in the White House says, as well as a number of websites that masquerade as ‘scientific’ climate change deniers.

Nonetheless, the fact is that there are some climate scientists who I suspect might be high-fiving each other these days, not because they’re happy to see 2/3rds of the US suffering from a deep-freeze, but because of a controversial prediction they made six years ago, that a reduction in sea-ice, and general warming in the Arctic would cause deeper meanderings of the now dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ into lower latitudes. Meaning that instead of the deep cold of the Arctic staying where it belongs in winter, closer to the Arctic circle, it could move down into the continental United States, Europe or Asia. That appears to be what’s driving this current cold snap, and the near record snowy and cold winter we had three years ago, and in the last couple of years (relatively mild winters here) Europe and Asia have also experienced some intense cold snaps too. During all this time Arctic sea-ice has been at near-record levels of retreat.

Science is an exploration of the unknown, so there’s always a lot of uncertainty involved, especially when dealing with something as complex as weather and climate. Nonetheless, you try to marshal the facts you have and fill in other details with educated guesses (often referred to as models), and draw some conclusions.  That said, it takes intellectual courage to make a prediction like this. No scientist wants to be wrong in print, especially when making an argument that might seem counter-intuitive, like warming of the Arctic leading to more intense cold snaps across the lower forty-eight. Of course, if you’re right you earn a lot of respect from your colleagues.

It’s probably still too early to be absolutely certain that reduced Arctic sea ice is driving changes in the Polar Vortex that have real consequences for a big chunk of humanity, in fact, absolute certainty about anything may be too big an ask something as complex as climate. It’s worth taking a quote from the authors of this one study (Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus) at the end of what is otherwise a technically challenging article, that provides a nice layman’s explanation of what it means.

“As the Arctic sea-ice cover continues to disappear and the snow cover melts ever earlier over vast regions of Eurasia and North America…, it is expected that large-scale circulation patterns throughout the northern hemisphere will become increasingly influenced by Arctic Amplification. Gradual warming of the globe may not be noticed by most, but everyone –  either directly or indirectly –  will be affected to some degree by changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Further research will elucidate the types, locations, timing, and character of the weather changes, which will provide valuable guidance to decision-makers in vulnerable regions.”

In the meantime, stay warm in this wicked cold, the ‘January thaw’ is on its way…we hope. And BTW, maybe it’s a sign of global warming, but windchill only got to -40 last night, not the promised -50.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.