Is Historic Cold Snap Linked to Climate Change?

by Logan Langley

In recent weeks, cold temperatures throughout the Midwest have been breaking decades-old records. We’ve heard stories of people getting frostbite in minutes and seen videos of friends throwing boiling water out their doors only to see it freeze in mid air. These frigid temperatures raise a simple question: “If global warming is real, what’s the deal with the cold?”

One theory asserts that the recent arctic temperatures from intense swirling winds in the arctic regions (the “polar vortex”) have simply grown in span, thus engulfing parts of the northern hemisphere that haven’t been affected generally.

However, some climate scientists assert that global weather patterns have shifted in such a way that arctic temperatures have began to drift, creating waves of cold air systems in regions of the world that generally wouldn’t have such extreme temperatures. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) recently posted a graphic showing the decrease in temperature in the United States due to the polar vortex:

The map shows two concentrations of cold temperatures: one directly over the Arctic Circle, and a second over much of North America. A line of cold winds connects the two systems, and comparatively warmer temperatures in other northern regions like Alaska and Northern Europe. This would imply that –rather than a spreading of Arctic cooling — we are seeing long, finger-like, drift from the central location moving as a wave. This drift is believed to be exacerbated by the warming climate. As temperatures between Northern and Southern regions become more alike, the warmer temperatures weaken west-to-east winds causing an easy path for cold temperatures to drift from the arctic.

As anthropogenic forces warm temperatures in the Arctic Circle, ice melts, and in turn exposes darker oceans to soak up heat more readily. This positive feedback of increasing temperatures in the Arctic troposphere and stratosphere likely bring significant changes to the ways the polar vortex, which usually swirls stably around the Arctic Circle, moves. Warmer temperatures moving into the Arctic Circle could throw the system off balance and cause more cold weather events like the one we are experiencing now. While this theory has not been perfected by scientists, the evidence shows that there is a likely connection to climate change.

Other articles relating to this phenomenon:

Logan Langley is a volunteer with the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.

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