What do cold snaps have to do with climate change?

January 15, 2018 by Marie Denoia Aronsohn, Earth Institute, Columbia University
The eastern U.S. has been in the grip of blizzards and cold snaps, with more forecasted in the coming week. What’s climate change got to do with it? Credit: DeShaun Craddock via Flickr

A record-shattering cold gripped the Northeastern United States during late December and early January. Meanwhile, a so-called bomb-cyclone brought in Winter Storm Grayson with its blizzard winds and heavy snowfall. Is all of this extreme weather normal, a product of global warming, or perhaps bone-chilling evidence that our climate is not really heating up after all?

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory post-doctoral fellow Deepti Singh studies human impact on climate and . She believes the reasons for the big chill and powerful snow storm may be linked to climate change, and that this is only the beginning of the impacts humanity can expect.

"The that has occurred so far is merely a fraction of what we're going to see in the future, and global warming does not mean we're not going to have winters," Singh explained.

Breaking it down, the 10-day spate of extremely frigid days was the result of typical weather patterns, intensified by a clash in temperatures between the western US, which is experiencing global warming at a faster pace than the eastern US.

"It's normal in that it's winter time and we can have snaps of . It's abnormal because it has covered such a wide part of the US. And it's also abnormal because it persisted for a couple of weeks," said Singh.

"The reason we get cold weather on the east coast is the configuration of the jet stream in the winter, which normally directs storms to the western U.S. and generally directs colder air from the Arctic towards the eastern US. This year we're having an extreme configuration of that," she said . "In the western US, a region of high pressure is pushing the jet stream much further north than it usually is. Associated with that, it is much further south over the eastern US than it usually is."

Hence, we had an extreme North American Winter Temperature Dipole, or contrast between the weather conditions of the eastern half of the US and the western half.

"The west is generally warmer than the east in wintertime, and that is associated with a region of higher pressure over the west and related lower pressure over the east. The region of lower pressure brings cooler air from the higher latitudes into the eastern U.S.," explained Singh. During the extended cold snap, parts of the western U.S. were between eight to 10 degrees warmer than average while the east went into a deep freeze. Essentially, the higher the contrast between west and east, the more extreme the variation of the winter temperature dipole.

Singh's current research seeks to discern how human-induced climate change may be driving the process that produced the recent brutal cold snap.

"It is linked to climate change insofar as these contrasting temperatures have increased over the last 40 years. We've found that the increase in the frequency of concurrent warm conditions in the west and cool conditions in the east is more likely with human caused climate change than it would be in a world without climate change. Precisely how that happens is still an active area of research."

Singh and her Lamont colleagues research on weather patterns by analyzing weather trends in daily temperatures, precipitation, and atmospheric patterns that have occurred during the past 40 years, in the post-satellite era.

"We analyze publicly available datasets of climate to look at how these conditions are changing over time," Singh explained. "Our studies show that the eastern US, although it has not warmed as much as the western US during the last 40 years, is supposed to start to warm up almost as quickly."

Theoretically, that would mean the contrast between east and west would start to reduce. "So, we might not get these kinds of events as frequently as we've been getting them. We're starting to see this in our simulations moving forward into the 21st century. However, even at the end of the century in a much warmer climate, such events can occur occasionally but likely less frequently than in today's climate."

What is certain to Singh is that change is packing a punch.

"We're seeing many extreme events occurring throughout the world and that often have large humanitarian and economic impacts. And that is representative of ."

As for the rest of the winter, Singh says the forecasts are showing a couple more icy snaps as soon as mid-January.

"Cold conditions are already affecting parts of the central U.S. and that is forecast to engulf the eastern U.S. over the next couple of days.," said Singh on Friday, January 12. "The next blast is expected closely following on the heels of that."

Explore further: Science Says: Why there's a big chill in a warmer world

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Evidence of earliest life on Earth disputed

October 17, 2018

When Australian scientists presented evidence in 2016 of life on Earth 3.7 billon years ago—pushing the record back 220 million years—it was a big deal, influencing even the search for life on Mars.

Arctic greening thaws permafrost, boosts runoff

October 17, 2018

A new collaborative study has investigated Arctic shrub-snow interactions to obtain a better understanding of the far north's tundra and vast permafrost system. Incorporating extensive in situ observations, Los Alamos National ...

Arctic ice sets speed limit for major ocean current

October 17, 2018

The Beaufort Gyre is an enormous, 600-mile-wide pool of swirling cold, fresh water in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Alaska and Canada. In the winter, this current is covered by a thick cap of ice. Each summer, as the ice ...

20 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

BobSage
2.3 / 5 (9) Jan 15, 2018
Start with an unshakable belief.

Then whatever evidence appears, that evidence must be bent to support the belief.

rhugh1066
2.5 / 5 (8) Jan 15, 2018
We MUST DEFEND AL GORE! PRAISE HIM!
MR166
2.5 / 5 (8) Jan 15, 2018
The great thing about climate science is that you get paid to bet every horse in the race so you alway come out a winner.
winthrom
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 15, 2018
Climate science is all about models based on past recorded weather trying to predict the future. GIGO can profoundly mess up results. Same goes for bad assumptions. The way testing is done is to plug in very old weather and see if it predicts newer old weather. Predictions are usually much better than 50% (coin flip) so far so I would listen to these climatologists.
greenonions1
3.7 / 5 (6) Jan 15, 2018
The great thing about climate science is that you get paid to bet every horse in the race so you alway come out a winner
Today's article is about weather. Climate and weather are different. MR refuses to understand a concept as basic as this. MR could not show us any climate models that predict the earth is going to cool - as we increase the level of GHG in the atmosphere.

Science is only about being a winner - in the sense that you have to get it right. It is OK to get it wrong - as that advances our understanding - but in the end we need to understand reality. Science is not about winners and losers in the childish sense MR means it. I have a friend who does research with microbes (the kind that cause ebola etc.) Winning is about developing a vaccine for ebola (for example) - not about brownie points...
leetennant
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 15, 2018
We MUST DEFEND AL GORE! PRAISE HIM!


Who is Al Gore and what does he have to do with this research?

I'm interested in this research, which to me is consistent with model predictions and the expected weather arising from a warming Arctic, versus the recent statistical analysis that concluded this was within the margin of error for normal. However, I can't seem to find that article and was wondering if it had been pulled.

Certainly, this kind of extreme cold across north America is to be anticipated. We've long know that a cold Arctic was what kept NA and parts of Europe temperate. Disrupting that system will drive colder weather south.
MR166
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 15, 2018
By betting on every horse in the race I mean that there is a model that proves that any natural occurrence is caused by increased CO2 levels. Climate, weather, social unrest, famine, rape crime and ...... to infinity have all been linked to increasing CO2 in some paper or the other.
leetennant
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 15, 2018
By betting on every horse in the race I mean that there is a model that proves that any natural occurrence is caused by increased CO2 levels. Climate, weather, social unrest, famine, rape crime and ...... to infinity have all been linked to increasing CO2 in some paper or the other.


Yeah, because that's what happens when the climate changes....

I can't work out if this a failure of education or just wilful ignorance. If you change the climate, you change everything.

Map climatic changes to the movements and patterns of human civilisation and you clearly see the correlation. We are only the climate we're trying to survive in. In the past, we dealt with climate changes by dying or moving. In a world of 7 billion people, the latter is not viable. Unless you think we can deal with 1 billion refugees. 1/2
leetennant
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 15, 2018
Climate changes = weather changes = food and water uncertainty = social unrest = death, violence and forced movements = broader social disruption = societal collapse.

What do you think happens when the glaciers providing water to most of mainland Asia dry up? When China's food bowl collapses? When Brazil ends up in a long-term drought? Take a look at Syria and you'll see exactly what happens when long-term famine happens.

You're either an extraordinarily ignorant person or you really believe the libertarian "everybody survives by themselves" bullshit you've been fed. The entire globe is an interconnected web of people positioned precariously on a stable climate. And that climate is rapidly changing. What did you think would happen?

2/2
greenonions1
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 15, 2018
Emphasizing the point that what we are looking at here is weather - and therefore should be taken in context - Alaska had it's warmest December on record - shattering the last record by a full 2 degrees. https://www.ncdc....l/201712 Some real interesting stats in that report - showing that a cold snap in the north east - should only be read as weather - and part of a much bigger picture.
greenonions1
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 15, 2018
By betting on every horse in the race I mean that there is a model that proves that any natural occurrence is caused by increased CO2 levels.
The models talk about average temperatures. There are predictions that we will see more extreme weather events - but one of the things deniers always scream at us - is that you cannot blame climate change for any single event. This is true to a point - so we agree. What you can do is talk about trends. The models talk about trends. There is no model that shows that the NE would have a cold spell this past December - they do not predict to that level of detail. You do not understand the difference between weather and climate - or what it is the models do - but you continue to show your ignorance.
leetennant
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 15, 2018
By betting on every horse in the race I mean that there is a model that proves that any natural occurrence is caused by increased CO2 levels.
The models talk about average temperatures. There are predictions that we will see more extreme weather events - but one of the things deniers always scream at us - is that you cannot blame climate change for any single event. This is true to a point - so we agree. What you can do is talk about trends. .


What I find annoying is the passing reference to "models" and "predictions" as though they don't represent a sound scientific process. You can argue as to whether a melting Arctic will cause extreme winter weather across North America or a warming climate will cause desertification somewhere but at least do it on the same basis as the prediction itself.

I feel like I'm in a pub with somebody going, "This just doesn't sound right to me" as though scepticism is just blankly refusing to believe stuff.
Thorium Boy
1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 16, 2018
Never say die, global warmists.
unrealone1
2 / 5 (4) Jan 16, 2018
Record Rain record Snow record Cold Equals Global Warming
97% of the USA is drought free, global warming?
97% of Australia drought free global warming?
https://www.scien...3428.htm
New Greenland ice core reveals warmer temperatures 120,000 years ago

Even though temperatures in Northern Greenland were 5-8 degrees Celsius higher than today, the thickness of the ice sheet was only a few hundred meters lower. And this despite the fact that sea level was 4-8 metres higher than today.

Greenland 5-8 degrees Celsius higher than today, 120,000 years ago with lower CO2, how could that be??
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 16, 2018
Record Rain record Snow record Cold Equals Global Warming
97% of the USA is drought free, global warming?
97% of Australia drought free global warming?
...


The US is not the world.
I know. This is something US citizens will never come to grips with, but they are a tiny (and increasingly irrelevant) part of this globe.

(And even in the US and Australia the temperatures are on the rise. Short cold spells don't change the average trend. Anyone who doesn't understand the words 'average' or 'trend' or 'climate' - as opposed to 'weather' - shouldn't bother posting on a science site. They're only managing to hold up big neon signs over their heads reading "uneducated and proud of it"...or: "I'm American"...lately that just comes out to the same thing)
Bart_A
1 / 5 (6) Jan 16, 2018
The basis of this "research" is pure BS. "The researcher believes the reasons for....so she did...." This is not science. It is politics.

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Jan 16, 2018
The basis of this "research" is pure BS. "The researcher believes the reasons for....so she did...." This is not science. It is politics.

The self-referential irony of your post is lost on you I take it?
unrealone1
1 / 5 (2) Jan 16, 2018
Why is George Soros buying Coal? Who controls Coal during a mini ice age?
Jump on the George Soros coal train.
https://www.marke...15-10-02
winthrom
4 / 5 (1) Jan 16, 2018
"The way testing is done is to plug in very old weather and see if it predicts newer old weather." (see 1st post) Let me clarify for climatology:

Years of very old data are used to predict years of less old data.

This article tries to use years of old data about west/east coast winter data to predict/explain current and upcoming west/east coast winters. Be careful to understand that climatology predicts on time scales longer than a month. Any predictions shorter than a month are weather, not climate.

I worked weather at Reese AFB, Lubbock TX in the late 60's. We had weather prediction charts that were based on old similar situations. I.e., if the time of year, winds, positions of highs and lows, temperatures, dew points, etc. were similar, then what happened next was likely similar also. This worked about 65% of the time. Weather, not climate!

Climate is El Niño and La Niña predictions. It is years long warming of the arctic until summer is now ice free. TV is for wx.
winthrom
5 / 5 (2) Jan 16, 2018
The article states "Singh studies human impact on climate and extreme weather. She believes the reasons for the big chill and powerful snow storm may be linked to climate change" The model she uses includes CO2 in the atmosphere. When the CO2 remains at per-industrial levels, the arctic stays frozen. When CO2 increases (as measured over many years) the model more closely resembles the current arctic, and therefore weather. CO2 is the major item, and CO2 continues to rise.

We humans exploit all natural resources so that we may "Be fruitful, multiply". This has surpassed the passenger space on planet earth, and we are now drowning in our own wastes. CO2 is the most fixable waste product we have, and yet we still cling to open fires in our homes (like the cave people we once were), coal/gas fired electric power plants, gasoline powered vehicles, etc.

Death always makes space but making life sustainable as we are now is better. "Don't poop in your mess kit"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.