Another terrific ABC News story — on the role global warming is playing in extreme winter weather

Earlier this month, ABC ran one of the best climate change stories ever to appear on a major network’s evening news show:  “Raging Waters In Australia and Brazil Product of Global Warming.”

On Friday they aired another very good piece — and now we know the secret of their accurate reporting.  As they explain:

ABC news contacted 10 climate scientists to ask their take, if the extreme winter like the one we’re having is the way of the future.  The consensus:  global warming is playing a role by shifting weather patterns in unpredictable ways.  Many say the forecast for the future calls for record-breaking precipitation and extreme temperatures year-round — and that means winter with more snow.

See also “An amazing, though clearly little-known, scientific fact: We get more snow storms in warm years!

The dividing line between good climate reporting and bad climate reporting is almost always whether the reporter talked to real climate scientists.  Typically, the more a reporter talks to, the better the story. It is very hard to get the story wrong if you talk to several of the leading climate scientists in any specific subfield.

Here’s the full story:

Kudos to ABC News for doing the basic work of science journalism, in this case, talking to leading climate scientist like, Dr. Richard Somerville, a coordinating lead author on the IPCC’s 2007 review of climate science.

UPDATE:  For a good NY Times story on some of issues surrounding the underlying science, see “Topsy-Turvy Weather Tied to Weaker Arctic ‘Fence’.”

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31 Responses to Another terrific ABC News story — on the role global warming is playing in extreme winter weather

  1. Great to see ABC devoting some real resources to covering climate reminds me of CNN a few years ago before they cut their entire Science/Environment unit. Hopefully others will follow suit.

  2. John McCormick says:

    This is like a drink of water for someone dying of thirst for truth.

    ABC = A Better Climate.

    We live with hope.

    John McCormick

  3. MapleLeaf says:

    “ABC news contacted 10 climate scientists to ask their take….”

    They won me over right there. None of this false balance nonsense.

    Hope they keep it up, and like Stephen noted, I hope that other outlets follow suit.

  4. Will G. says:

    (I’m going to mention before my question that I’m a greenpeace activist and ardent climate hawk just so my intentions aren’t confused.)

    I’m confused and hope that someone can explain the science in a little more detail. I understand there is more snow in warm years, but how could we attribute in any way this cold with agw? Isn’t it just an isolated weather event and weather doesn’t equal climate?

  5. Andy says:

    I can see the average viewer rolling their eyes while watching this story. “Can’t scientists make up their mind?” sort of thoughts ran through my head while I watched.

    I think AGW is beginning to be dismissed by the U.S. population as nothing more than another “Is margarine good or bad for you?” story.

    [JR: There is no evidence for that and I actually think the reverse is true. The public knows the weather is getting chaotic. The media coverage has actually improved in recent weeks.]

    The simplest explanation of what is being observed was left out of this story. It’s essential that scientists begin to communicate better to U.S. citizens.

    Here is what’s missing:
    – The globe’s average yearly temperature slowly cools from the equator to the subtropics.
    – The globe’s average yearly temperature then steeply drops towards the pole.
    – The very cold air generated by polar winter darkness is usually kept trapped within the extreme north (and south) of the globe by very fast moving polar jet streams.
    – The last couple of winters has seen this trapping effect break down resulting in some bursts of cold weather across Europe and the Eastern U.S.
    – Very few cold temperature records have been broken despite this. Normally such cold outbreaks should result in large numbers of new records but there is less and less cold air to go around.
    – The outbreaks of polar air into the temperate regions has resulted in extremely warm, record breaking, polar winters.
    – The number of new high temperature records greatly exceeds the number of new cold records and this disparity is increasing every year.
    – We can expect a lot more extreme precipitation events; either rain or snow.

    [JR: Uhh, that’s not simple, especially for TV. These two stories are extraordinary for the MSM. Let’s see what they do in the coming months.]

  6. Andy says:

    Well, what do you know. The New York Times has answers my criticisms here. The headline says it all very well. “Arctic Fence Broken Down”.

    [JR: Jury is out on that theory, but the article is pretty good.]

  7. Bill W says:

    Kudos to ABC for this. I just hope their sponsors don’t shut them down.

  8. Mike#22 says:

    “JR: Uhh, that’s not simple, especially for TV.”

    What about a graphic or animation showing what a normal winter looks like, with a reasonably stable dome of cold air at the pole, and then contrast that with the disturbed dome and polar jet behavior we are seeing right now?

    Viewers are used to seeing “jet stream” on the telly weather forecast, shouldn’t be much of a leap.

    [JR: Could be useful, but it’s only one piece in a fairly long chain, not all of whose links are fully agreed upon.]

  9. Nick says:

    Great stuff. They should also make use of those very intuitive temperature anomaly maps.

    Next step is to give scientists some more face time during these segments. The MSM helped degrade public trust in climate science–and with the right kind of leadership, it can help to build it back up.

  10. Bill Blakemore at ABC News deserves a ton of credit for creating a network that reports fairly, honestly and accurately on climate.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    As Joe knows, the first step needed for the public to wake up is for the media to do likewise, and begin to ignore the Bastardis and Moncktons. Here’s another excellent climate story from Margot Roosevelt of the LA Times, much better than anything you’ll ever read in NYT or other papers:,0,5134908.story

    Deniers of course hammered the comments section, just like they do on Dot Earth. Eventually maybe the public will begin to see them as the cranks that they are.

  12. Nick says:

    Jeff Masters has commented on a few interesting graphs constructed w/ NCDC’s Climate Extremes Index:

    “Averaged over decades-long time scales, the U.S. climate has been getting more extreme since 1970, but has not changed significantly over a century-long time scale…These increases were most pronounced in the summer. No trend in extremes were noted for winter…

    The ten most extreme years on record occurred since 1996. However, some very extreme years also occurred in the 1910s through 1950s, in association with widespread extreme drought and above-average temperatures…

    The sustained lack of maximum temperatures much below normal over the past decade is unique. The behavior of minimum temperatures over the past decade is clearly unprecedented–both in the lack of minimum temperatures much below normal, and in the abnormal portion of the U.S. with much above normal minimum temperatures.”

    I’m guessing that ABC might have a hard time dealing w/ the deets…

  13. George Ennis says:

    “On Friday they aired another very good piece — and now we know the secret of their accurate reporting.”

    Yes the climate scientists were hiding in plain sight.

    But seriously good to see some media beginning to deal with the complexity of climate change issues particularly weather events that on the surface are perceived by the public as being counterintuitive to AGW.

    As a Canadian I was glad to see the NYT story. The national weather person on our public broadcaster the CBC struggles at times to try to explain the anomalies happening in our North. The struggle is trying to put in perspective just how large the temperature anomalies have been and not just for one day. As she said recently it would be as if Toronto was experiencing for the month of December temperatures of around 20 degrees celsius. Overall I think she does a good job.

  14. DavidCOG says:

    Heads up: talking of excellent TV, James Delingpole is on the BBC tonight, being “torn apart and intellectually raped” (his words) by the president of the Royal Society.

    For those outside the UK, you may be able to watch BBC’s online iPlayer via a proxy server – search on ‘proxy server bbc iplayer’ for instructions. Not sure how quickly they load up content after airing on TV….

  15. Barry says:

    Great piece by ABC news again. Excellent.

    In my experience, most people at this point are more effected by examples of unusual extreme weather (“wow that IS weird”)…rather than the exact details of what is causing it (“what kind of oscillation?”).

    Perhaps it would make better TV to highlight a few of the freaky warm spots in the arctic as a contrast to the freaky cold down south…than it would to try to explain the theory of why.

    For example ABC could add: “And while Georgia was digging out from record snow and freezing, parts of northern Canada are averaging 38F above normal for the month. Coal Harbor on Hudson Bay just went above freezing for the first time ever recorded in winter.”

    Including the freaky warmth events would help bring home the reality that the earth right now isn’t unusually cold just because your town is.

  16. Ed Hummel says:

    To Will G #4, it’s actually pretty simple to understand cold outbreaks even with AGW if one realizes that all the weather that the mid latitudes (where most developed countries are) experience comes from somewhere else. As long as there is still enough cold air available in the Arctic, all it takes for mid latitude countries (such as the US) to get a cold “blast” is for the circulation pattern to funnel the air down our way. Also, as the atmosphere warms, “normal” patterns will be disrupted so that the circulation might change in ways not usually seen in the recent past. Thus, last winter some relatively cold air got funneled down to the US Southeast to give them air and snow that they were not used to seeing. Meanwhile, most of New England and all of eastern Canada saw and almost balmy winter with record high average temperatures. The cold air was there, but it just got distributed differently than what we had assumed was normal. So even though there is not much less of it than there used to be just 30 years ago, the people that got it really felt cold, especially if they weren’t used to it. Of course the MSM always makes a big deal about such things, so the general impression becomes that the Earth is actually cooling, especially when that’s all the people hear (as Climate Progess has continuously pointed out!!).

  17. The Arctic ocean used to be frozen solid and used to have a weather system parked over it – sort of full time. Now that is gone, I notice there are now two weather systems that spin around the polar region – seems to drop down into Europe to make it really cold, and then hits the Northern US regions too.

    Hope ABC talks about that sometime.

  18. Esop says:

    The NYT story was excellent too. They even dissed the denialist blogs.
    No comment section either, that means the paid disinformers won’t be able to spread their lies and disinformation in the comments.

    Looks like there could be a major change in how the MSM reports on climate, at least in the US. The European press is still very quiet.
    Seems weird, as the US East Coast is freezing (Euro MSM went ballistic during the cold snap here, but hardly mentions very warm temps all through January).
    I think the Australian floods have opened some eyes.

  19. Will G. says:

    Ed, thanks for the explanation. I know that weather is chaotic and the long-term trend is clearly warmer temperatures. I just think we need to be careful when we say “these cold temperatures are the new norm” which is what that video seemed to say. Extremely confusing, no?

  20. Could you provide a link to the story on the ABC website? I can’t find it. Thanks.

  21. Michael T. says:

    Here is the current ENSO status (updated every Monday) of the La Nina, predictions and other information:

    There is a nice map on page 14 that shows temp and precip departures for the last 30 and 90 days across the U.S.

  22. Eric S. says:

    Sadly, this popped up on the top of my google news page:

    I’t got all the classic denier language, including quotes from Moncton, conflating weather with climate and raising “doubts” that weather station data can be believed. Honestly, for every well balanced article, there seems to be a dozen hit pieces.

  23. Villabolo says:

    @4 Will G. says:

    I’m confused and hope that someone can explain the science in a little more detail. I understand there is more snow in warm years, but how could we attribute in any way this cold with agw? Isn’t it just an isolated weather event and weather doesn’t equal climate?

    Ed explained your question in #16. I’ll give you a different way of explaining it that will help explain things better to others because it is visual.

    Carry an anomaly map in your back pocket like the one on…

    (The last chart for 2011 is the one you would use since it’s actually for December of 2010.)

    …and take it out and present it to people when the subject arises. Explain to them that red means hotter than average and blue means cooler than average.

    At first the contrast and quantity of the colors will give an unconscious signal that something is wrong with their ‘reality’. As soon as you give a short verbal presentation, the visually obvious will register in their conscious mind.

    The following should suffice:

    “Only a limited portion of the Earth was bluer, that is up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than normal but only in December alone. But now look at how much of it is pink and dark red which is much hotter, up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.”

    “Conclusion. All that’s happened is a flip flop of (relative) temperatures, not a global cooling.”

    In doing this you’re not really explaining the dynamics of how it’s happening but you’re at least showing that the whole Earth isn’t frigid.

    PS: Make sure to read the color coded bar for that month carefully.

    Also, it has been brought to my attention that these maps are (unavoidably) distorted but you can use polar charts if you want to. They just don’t show much.

  24. CAW says:

    It shouldn’t be called “Global Warming”. It should be called “Global Menopause.”

  25. Chris Winter says:

    Eric S, it’s amazing that Fox News is still citing the Surface Stations Project — and amusing that the story misspells the name of the project’s originator.

    Obviously, Bill Sammon’s memo is in full effect.

  26. Craig says:

    One of the lines I’ve seen employed here in the past is that “global warming is obvious, the evidence is all around you”. As evidenced by the above discussion, it clearly isn’t always obvious.

    As someone who has lived in a very cold place (Northern Minnesota), it is clear to me that warmer, wetter conditions can give you heavier snowfall, IF it is still cold enough to freeze. But that warmer, wetter = more snow doesn’t make a lot of sense to those folks down South who are seeing snow and ice when they normally see rain. Then they understandably start to wonder how to reconcile predictions of global warming with a colder winter. At that point, any kind of after the fact explanation of why global warming can lead to colder weather in some places is probably going to be met with suspicion.

    It seems somewhat analogous to what has happened with diet advice: first all dietary fat was bad, then is was mainly saturated fat that was bad, then you start to hear discussion of good fat, and your doctor is telling to take fish oil (a kind of fat) to lower your triglycerides….. Is it surprising that people are confused?

  27. Edward says:

    Rossby waves from the top: There are [3 or] 4 waves circling the North Pole. One wave consists of a high pressure area and a low pressure area. That is [6 or] 8 pressure areas in a ring around the pole at the latitude of Canada. Between the pressure areas are flows north and flows south.

    Between a clockwise rotation and a counterclockwise rotation [left to right] the flow is from the north to the south at ground level. The reverse is true between a counterclockwise rotation and a clockwise rotation. Every quarter rotation, the flow is north. In between those flows at 45 degrees + quarter rotations, the flow is south.

    So, by rotating the Rossby wave system 1/8 turn [45 degrees] with respect to the Earth, the flow at a certain point on the Earth is reversed. England is at zero degrees longitude. Greenland is at, low and behold, 45 degrees West longitude. Greenland was cold and is now warm. England was warm and is now cold.

    Conclusion: Global Warming has rotated the Rossby Wave system 45 degrees of longitude from its former position. When you are in an air flow From the pole, you feel cold. When you are in a flow From the south and you are in the northern hemisphere, you feel warm. QED. Case closed.

    What rotated the Rossby waves?: This winter we have a polar high instead of a polar low because there was very little ice on the Arctic ocean. The lack of ice exposed the air to the “warm” water, heating and humidifying the air.

  28. Edward says:

    “Normal” weather: They only average over the last 10 years. Ask some old timers what winters were like in the 1930s thru 1960s. This winter and last winter are very mild, compared to MY memory.

  29. Esop says:

    #27 (Edward): very good points, but note that England is now warm (and has been for practically all of January). Temps went straight up as Greenland cooled to more normal temps early this month.

  30. Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: 28

    Yes, indeed. You don’t have to go back to the 1960s, either. When our kids were still in car seats in the mid 1980s, one Christmas Eve, we went to the family farm for our holiday dinner with -45 wind chills howling around us.

  31. Badgersouth says:

    Joe: A “heads up.” Cosmic rays are back!

    New study affirms natural climate change

    CHURCHVILLE, VA—It’s nice when people validate your work. Fred Singer and I—co-authors of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years—are currently basking in the glow of a new paper that affirms the earth’s long, moderate, natural climate cycle. The study is by Dr. U.R. Rao, former chair of India’s Space Research Organization. He says solar variations and cosmic rays account for 40 percent of the world’s recent global warming…..

    [JR: Still no basis in actual science.]