Climate

Yes, It’s Cold. Global Warming Is Still Real.

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It’s that time again, folks — winter. And you know what that means.


Freezing temperatures are being recorded all across America. It was 10°F degrees in Washington, D.C., this morning, but that was just the tip of the (ahem) iceberg. New York saw wind chills of 0°F, with gusting to minus 12°F. Schools were forced to close in Chicago because of temperatures plunging to -28°F. In Ohio, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, forecasters predicted winds chills as low as minus 20°-30°F below zero. It’s pretty cold in Texas, too.

All that’s to say it’s cold — “dangerously cold,” in fact — in many parts of America. But (and I can’t believe I still have to say this) none of that means anything about the existence of global warming. As you may remember, global warming means that the globe — i.e., the whole planet, not just where you live — is steadily increasing in temperature, on average. The fact that it is very cold in one small part of the world for a short period of time does not disprove a long-term global trend.

Those who disagree may use the common contrarian argument that there is no long-term global trend showing an increase in the Earth’s temperature. The most widely-respected meteorological organizations from across the world have shown that this is untrue. The World Meteorological Organization reports that the years 2001 to 2010 represented the warmest decade since the start of modern measurements in 1850. Just this week, the Japan Meteorological Agency announced that 2014 was the hottest year in more than 120 years of record-keeping by far. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is expected to announce a similar finding in a couple of weeks and so is NASA.

These heat records, along with the heat records the Earth has set in previous years (14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century) draw not just from atmospheric temperature, but from the heat content of the ocean. More than 90 percent of the heat generated from increased carbon emissions gets absorbed into the ocean, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So we’ve been spared from some of the more intense heat increases in the atmosphere because of ocean heat absorption — but some scientists predict that that’s likely to change.

One of the reasons people in the United States might be less keen to believe the science on global warming is because it just doesn’t feel like it’s getting hotter where they live. And that’s correct: while the world itself had its hottest year ever in 2014, the United States only had its 34th warmest year on record, according to NOAA data announced Thursday.

So it’s useful to put that into perspective. While it may be cold here, it’s just the opposite in many other parts of the world. Currently in Australia, for example, it’s so extremely hot that the internet was forced to temporarily shut down in some places. In Perth, Monday was the city’s sixth hottest day on record, and the hottest January day since 1991. The country is also seeing some of its worst wildfires in over thirty years.

And while you might not know it, day-to-day heat records are also currently being set in the United States. The National Weather Service reported Wednesday that in Long Beach, California, a winter heat spell — 83 degrees at Long Beach Airport — tied a record high temperature set in 1996. Phoenix, Arizona, also posted a record high temperature.

None of those heat events alone prove global warming is real, just like none of the cold weather in much of the United States right now disproves it. What it does prove is that weather is just weather, not indicative of long-term global trends.

But even though weather doesn’t say anything about climate change, climate change does influence the weather. It’s been shown time and again that bizarre and unpredictable things can happen when heat accumulates in the atmosphere and ocean. Indeed, climate change affects all weather events because the world is warmer and moister than it used to be. That includes heat, drought, rainfall, storms — and yes, even cold.

Anyway, until next year.