60-Second Earth

What Does Winter Weather Reveal about Global Warming?

No single weather event proves or disproves the fundamental science of climate change, but extreme weather is what scientists expect from global warming. David Biello reports

Snowpocalypse. Snowmageddon. Whatever your preferred appellation, this week's winter storms brought misery to denizens of the U.S. east coast and prompted some at least to question the scientific theory of climate change.  

After all, shouldn't global warming deliver us from ice, snow and cold? The site of the Winter Olympics seems to think so, Vancouver experienced the warmest January on record and may have to import snow. Thirty-two people have died during an ongoing heat wave in Brazil. In fact, globally speaking, this January was the warmest in the last three decades.  

Sadly, climate change won't save you from bundling up, or shoveling. Even in a much warmer world, there will still be colder than average winters. What's worse, U.S. government scientists predicted last year that global warming will actually increase snowstorms, thanks to the potent combination of more moisture in the atmosphere from warmer average temperatures paired with the usual cold of winter. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted the same in 2007. In short, winter storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent, with stronger winds.  

Ultimately, the storm of blather surrounding recent weather events can largely be blamed on a fundamental misunderstanding. Weather is the day-to-day temperature, humidity and precipitation. Climate is the overall combination of all these events over a long period of time. No single weather event—heat wave, hurricane or blizzard—tells us much about climate.  

—David Biello


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