Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change

The warm temperatures and lack of snow in Colorado this year make climate change feel all the more tangible and pressing. However, recent frigid conditions and heavy snowfall on the East Coast have prompted some, including the President of the United States, to continue to cast doubt upon climate science. While historic cold temperatures and snowfall in select areas garner widespread media attention, the inverse of phenomena, such as the “bomb cyclone,” is the continued upward trend in average global temperatures. In fact, cold temperatures in certain areas can emerge as a direct result of warming elsewhere. 

Photo by Benjamin Swift

Melting Arctic ice allows the polar jet stream to weaken, creating conditions called the “polar vortex” that allows cool air normally trapped in the Arctic to descend into more Southern latitudes. For example, though it recently snowed in Tallahassee, Fla., for the first time in nearly 30 years, Alaska experienced anomalous 49-degree temperatures.

Rather than exclusively inducing warmer global temperatures, climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, whether they are manifested in extreme heat, extreme cold, or natural disasters such as hurricanes. This reality correlates with the decreased use of the term “global warming,” in favor of “climate change,” as the latter more accurately represents the litany of expected climatic changes arising largely as a result of overall rise in global temperature.

When interpreting weather patterns and their implications in the context of this changing world, it is essential to bear in mind the difference between climate and weather. According to Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, climate refers to overall global weather trends, whereas weather describes meteorological trends—including temperature and precipitation—in an isolated area and time period. Oppenheimer likens this distinction to the stock market: though the market may be in an overall upward trend, the trend is not a straight line. Rather, it experiences dramatic dips and rises, even while it increases overall in the long term. Climate scientist Peter Frumhoff puts forth a similar analogy, stating that denying climate change based on temporary cold weather in an isolated area “is like saying, ‘If everyone around me is wealthy, then poverty is not a problem.’” Isolated weather events, like a single day on the stock market or a privileged lifestyle, are not representative of climate trends as a whole.

As students who enjoy outdoor recreation and conservation, we are obligated to familiarize ourselves with the facts of climate change and the logical fallacies, to which one can easily fall prey. This knowledge allows us to better anticipate future climatic events and inspire us to work even harder to minimize our environmental impact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *