Energy, News, and Climate / Policy / Science

On climate, weather, skepticism, and the “polar vortex” that is freezing the US

3 days ago I was in Boston. It was roughly 0 degrees Fahrenheit and 2 feet of snow had just fallen while I was asleep.

Today it is above 50 degrees in Boston and it is raining.

Conversely, in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio the high today is -5 and Ohio State is shut down today and tomorrow due to -30 degree wind chill (It should be noted that Ohio State has had less than a handful of snow days, ever). It gets more ridiculous… Minneapolis (home of OSU’s Big Ten Rival, Minnesota), not wanting to be topped by Ohio, decided it needed to be colder. The high in Minneapolis is around -15 and the wind chill is down to -50. People can get frostbite withing 10 minutes of stepping outside in those conditions.

Just for reference: Columbus is the furthest south (39′ N), followed by Boston (42′ N), and then Minneapolis (44′ N).

So… what is going on? Why is the weather so crazy and why is it so cold across most of the country right now?

Is this climate change? Certainly it isn’t global warming (which, as we have established in the past, is not the correct term for the phenomenon)? Maybe it is just local weather patterns?

Some people are using this one event to say that climate change isn’t real (of course). A terribly depressing blog was pointed to me earlier this week.

Here is my favorite image from the aforementioned blog, courtesy of one Donald Trump:

This type of website and these types of viewpoints are unfortunately not that uncommon. They arise from people who do not take the time and effort to really understand the facts behind what is going on. My goal here is not to force my views on others, but to merely state the facts and allow readers to make their own, informed conclusions. I will admit to having a bias and I will also admit to telling you what my own views are and defending them with logical arguments. I don’t see any harm in that. Healthy, intelligent discussion is kind of what blogging is for. Without further ado, some facts that might help:

-Weather and climate are not the same. Weather is a snapshot of a climate in a particular location at a particular time (the examples above concerning the major cities and their temperatures would be weather, while the polar cyclone or the makeup of the jet stream would be climate). It is an important distinction.

-Climate change does not mean global warming, nor can we see climate change from one event (or from one year). If there is a change in the long term average data for a particular measurement that is more what we are after. There are several ways to look at data and each way can allow the person to interpret things differently. Skeptical Science published a wonderful graphic that addresses this concept a few months ago:



This figure demonstrates my above point about long term averages vs. yearly differences. The long term average is the key for “climate change.”

Alright, back to the specific events occurring now:

By now, I’m sure a good many people have heard about a polar vortex or something similar. Admittedly, I am no expert on this particular weather pattern, so seek the opinion of someone who is before you pass judgement (scientists should consider admitting that they aren’t experts on everything more often). From what I understand, cool air is essentially being pushed south from the pole by this force. The reason the cold air is trapped where it is  currently is very likely to be the jet stream. The jet stream separates cool air from the North and warm air from the South. Usually the stream oscillates, but due to climate events such as polar warming the jet stream pattern can change and it can become relatively stable in one shape. Look here for a wonderful, short, and simply explained video by two climate scientists that examines how the jet stream works. 

The jet stream is not the only factor here. In fact there are many more. I don’t want to go into detail here because this post has already gotten rather large and you all tend to get bored if that happens (speaking of which, if you have made it this far, congrats! Thanks for reading 🙂 ).

What we are seeing in much of the midwest, east, and even some of the south are record breaking cold spells caused by these climatic events. Does that mean that climate change isn’t happening? NO. Remember when I said record breaking? You may also remember a previous post in which we discussed how climate change doesn’t mean global warming, instead it means that the extremes will be more extreme. That is, the hottest is hotter and the coldest is colder. The storms are more frequent and severe and the weather becomes more and more unpredictable. Think about some of the recent climate and weather events (go back 10 or so years). Do you see a trend towards any or all of those things?

I do.

But again, I am here to present facts. I encourage informed decision making. Do with this knowledge what you will. Don’t be afraid to do your own research. I am happy to discuss this in the comments or elsewhere.

Happy reading and Happy New Year!

Stay tuned for some more upbeat, dolphin themed fun later this week (sharks get a week, why can’t dolphins?).

11 thoughts on “On climate, weather, skepticism, and the “polar vortex” that is freezing the US

  1. anyone that presents a 30 graph to describe climate change isn’t being very scientific or genuine…. climate has been changing for millions of years.


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