Extreme winter weather does not disprove climate change nor global warming
COLUMBIA - Winter weather is often attacked in an attempt to prove climate change and global warming are not real. There is a lot to unpack here, but first we have to talk about the difference between weather and climate. Remember that weather is the atmospheric conditions for a specific date and time. Climate is the average long-term observed conditions.
It’s also important to note that climate change and global warming are not the same thing. Climate change covers many factors, and while global warming is the main factor in our changing climate, it is not the only change happening.
When we talk about the four seasons we experience in Missouri, we can see that all of them are changing, and for winter, it’s getting shorter on average.
But! We still have winter. We will still get cold snaps and snow storms. In fact, one of the main components of climate change is more-extreme weather patterns occurring more often, something we have seen plenty of first-hand right here in Missouri.
For the majority of the United States, 38 states to be exact, winter is the season that is warming fastest. Texas and most of the Rocky Mountain states see their biggest warming in Fall, while the west and northwest see the biggest changes occurring in spring and fall seasons.
For Missouri, our fastest warming period over the past 50 years has been during winter with the least amount of extra warming occurring in the summer.
Looking at the data, we find our winters in central Missouri to be roughly 4-degrees warmer.
So, as you can see, winter is actually a big deal when it comes to climate change. Not because we aren’t supposed to have one, but because it is getting shorter. Meanwhile as it gets shorter, there is a chance that we experience more extreme winter weather more often than in the past. This is in part because we still expect an increase in moisture content in the atmosphere.
One thing we may start getting more of are ice storms. This is because with rising average temperatures, it is more likely that when moisture moves through our area it has a better chance to fall in conjunction with temps closer to freezing instead of colder when it would be snow instead of ice.
Now, some may think that a shorter winter is good, however, a cold, seasonal winter season is important for many different reasons. One of those is for human health. In order to kill off the highest amount of disease-carrying insects such as ticks and mosquitoes, we need consecutive cold winter days.
When we look at the data for Columbia we find nearly ten fewer years with consecutive cold below-average winter days versus 50 years ago. In other words, the cold doesn’t tend to span for a long period of time as often as it used to.
Fruit trees that usually become dormant in winter may not get their full “rest”, and produce a smaller yield as a result. Pollen counts may also be higher which can trigger respiratory illnesses for allergy sufferers. Meanwhile, in colder climates, winter-based recreational activities, like skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling may take a hit as winters experience more rain than snow. And yes, that means billion-dollar industries are being affected by climate change.
While winter may be shorter on average, extreme weather is still expected. You see, as our polar jet stream weakens due to a warmer arctic, it will become wavier instead of more of a straight line west to east. When the jet becomes wavier it will jolt down into the U.S. and bring cold arctic air with it. Some of this arctic air comes from the polar vortex. This can lead to an increase in snow storms and cold snaps. Yet, the cold we feel today may not be as bad as even a generation ago.
When we look at the data we find that the coldest day we experience each year is roughly 12-degrees warmer than it was 50 years ago.
Remember each year isn’t the same. Some years will be colder and some will be warmer while others are wetter or drier. Remember that climate is the long-term trend, not the single year’s weather. And now you have the facts you need in order to explain that just because it’s cold and snowy doesn’t mean climate change and global warming aren’t real. In fact, it might just further prove that it is.
You can watch and read other Show Me Climate stories at komu.com/climate.
This story is part of SHOW ME CLIMATE, an ongoing KOMU 8 series devoted to ethically explaining climate change without politics using fact-based data to deliver important information about our world and the Show-Me State.