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Posted by on Feb 11, 2010 in Politics, Science & Technology | 38 comments

Weather is not Climate: What the Bad Winter Storms in the U.S. Northeast Have to Do With Global Warming

Jon Stewart had a nice bit last night on the bad winter weather in the northeast, poking fun at those, mostly on the right, who think that all the snow is evidence that global warming is a myth.

The fact is, weather is not the same thing as climate, and a single weather event doesn’t really tell us anything meaningful about climate, let alone global climate. This is simple enough to understand, isn’t it?

I won’t repeat what I’ve written many times before — e.g., here, here, and here — but the gist is this: Climate changes on a global level can lead to all sorts of freakish weather. Indeed, in a world that is warming, winter storms like the one ravaging the northeast will continue to happen — and may be partly attributable to global warming. Here, via TNR’s Brad Plumer, is meteorologist Jeff Masters:

There are two requirements for a record snow storm:

1) A near-record amount of moisture in the air (or a very slow moving storm).
2) Temperatures cold enough for snow.

It’s not hard at all to get temperatures cold enough for snow in a world experiencing global warming. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the globe warmed 0.74°C (1.3°F) over the past 100 years. There will still be colder than average winters in a world that is experiencing warming, with plenty of opportunities for snow.

The more difficult ingredient for producing a record snowstorm is the requirement of near-record levels of moisture. Global warming theory predicts that global precipitation will increase, and that heavy precipitation events–the ones most likely to cause flash flooding–will also increase. This occurs because as the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air.

And here’s Brad with some additional points:

Now, that doesn’t mean we can definitively blame this snow monstrosity on global warming — again, it’s hard to attribute any single weather event to long-term climate shifts. (For instance, El Niño may be playing a bigger role right now in feeding these storms.) At most, we can say that a warming climate will create the conditions that make fierce winter storms in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic more likely. Or at least it will for awhile: If the planet keeps heating up, then at some point freezing conditions in the Northeast will become very rare, at which point snowstorms will, too But we’re not at that point — the Earth hasn’t warmed that much yet.

On the other hand, climate models do predict that snowstorms in the southernmost parts of the United States should become much rarer in the coming decades: There’s plenty of moisture down south, but freezing temperatures are likely to decrease and the jet stream is expected to shift northward. So if those regions start seeing a sustained uptick in snowfall, then something’s gone awry in climate predictions. But the blizzard in the Northeast, while miserable and incredibly disruptive, doesn’t appear whack with long-term forecasts.

(For more, see Bryan Walsh at Time.)

All this is science, though, and, of course, the global warming skeptics and denialists, like the various talking heads on Fox News, don’t want anything to do with science, with truth and the search for truth, with reality. For them, it’s about sticking their heads out the window, once they remove them from their backsides, and basing everything on a) how they feel, and b) what fits their partisan political ideology and narrative.

“Oh, look, it’s snowy, it’s cold… Al Gore is wrong!”

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

And extraordinarily dangerous. We disregard what our world is telling us at our peril. And, in refusing to deal with what is going on, with what an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is telling us, we put not just ourselves in peril but also future generations that will have to deal with our willful negligence.

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  • Axel Edgren

    “I once got mugged by a white person. F**k all the white people.”

    What we need to understand here is that a majority of the world’s population, by nature and by upbringing, simply is lacking to think very well in the abstract.

    But, an unworthy species lives, a worthy one survives.

    The only horrible part is how very poor nations who’ve added nothing to the pollution and whose historical misfortune is to our advantage will go first.

    But things need to be symbolical if sheltered, Western minds are to actually act rationally. The prevalence of religion doesn’t help either. This is why 45,000 people dying from lack of insurance doesn’t cause a reaction, but the death of 3000 people in 9/11 did create a reaction. A perfectly moronic reaction, since the symbol of 9/11 had to pass through the filters of a flawed society before the symbol of 9/11 was finished, and the symbol ended up being useless as a signifier to the actual event.

  • DaMav

    I’m sure you are condemning all those Alarmists claiming local weather conditions are proof of AGW and the urgency of ‘taking action’.

    stupid, stupid, stupid indeed

    Robert Kennedy, Jr complains about the lack of snow in DC showing Global Warming is true
    http://www.robertfkennedyjr.com/articles/2008_sep_Los_angeles_times.html

    A video showing numerous Democrats in Congress citing local weather conditions as the rationale for urgent action on Cap and Trade. Byrd, Boxer… too many to list
    http://theblogprof.blogspot.com/2010/02/flashback-video-robert-byrd-other-dems.html

    Need I mention the famous picture of a single polar bear on a single ice flow that has been offered repeatedly as ‘proof’ that AGW is correct?

    Meanwhile we have those such as you cited in your post claiming that a record snowfall is actually evidence in favor of warming through the ‘freakish weather’ effect.

    What kind of a theory can claim that no matter what happens, it simply proves the theory? Answer: Not a scientific one.

    • jchem

      Axel said: “No matter what”? Strawman silliness. Lol, read some blogs from people who, unlike you and your ilk, operate in good faith and actually want to convince you rather than play on your emotional strings.

      psst, hey DaMav, about that Angrily Attacked by Axel Theater Service Pin? I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold on to it for very long 🙂

      • DaMav

        😉

  • Axel Edgren

    “I’m sure you are condemning all those Alarmists claiming local weather conditions are proof of AGW and the urgency of ‘taking action’.”

    Um, very much yes. Unlike people pretending it’s not disingenuous to stay mute under W and scream at Obama over fiscal matters, I’m not a hypocrite, nor a mongrel.

    “Robert Kennedy, Jr complains about the lack of snow in DC showing Global Warming is true”

    Idiot. That kind of thinking shouldn’t be exhibited by leaders.

    ” A video showing numerous Democrats in Congress citing local weather conditions as the rationale for urgent action on Cap and Trade

    Ditto.

    “Need I mention the famous picture of a single polar bear on a single ice flow that has been offered repeatedly as ‘proof’ that AGW is correct? ”

    “A symbol is something such as an object, picture, written word, sound, or particular mark that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention.”

    I don’t care much for the usage of symbols when discussing the real, but people are what they are and one has to stoop to their level if one needs their political weight.

    “Meanwhile we have those such as you cited in your post claiming that a record snowfall is actually evidence in favor of warming through the ‘freakish weather’ effect.”

    Such occurrences function as evidence, when taken together over the years. It perfectly works with the concept of a planet with excess energy. More energy will mean more precipitation, and more snow in places with cold winters. This is all K-garten stuff.

    “What kind of a theory can claim that no matter what happens, it simply proves the theory?”

    “No matter what”? Strawman silliness. Lol, read some blogs from people who, unlike you and your ilk, operate in good faith and actually want to convince you rather than play on your emotional strings.

    • archangel

      hi there Axel
      This is a second warning from TMV to you about attacking other commenters/ writers in your comments. We hold to newspaper standards at TMV. Please desist. Read the commenter’s rules at the top of the home page. You are welcome to debate with facts all you want. However, TMV wont tolerate further attacks/ name calling/ of other commenters/ or writers.

      Thanks

      • Axel Edgren

        Is this a thing now where everyone doesn’t bother to spell my name correctly.

        Do I have to procure a birth certificate or something? I promise my name is Axel.

        Anyway, warning taken. Although I was calling Kennedy and those democrats “Idiots”, and no one else.

        • archangel

          thanks Axel; I apologize for mis-spelling your name. It has been corrected throughout.

  • JSpencer

    It’s enough for many on the right to realize that most democrats believe AGW is real. The way is then smoothed for them to decide where they come down on it. If that’s too overt (for the pesky conscience) they can always go cherry-picking to help with the rationalization. After that it’s easier to convince oneself it’s a studied choice, and not a reflexive one. In otherwords, if you dislike Al Gore enough, then the decision is an easy one. 😉

    As for the difference between weather and climate, you would think that would be a no-brainer for most people. That said, I’ve often been surprised at how basic, garden variety common sense has somehow morphed into an impossibly high standard in the 21st century.

  • DLS

    “What kind of a theory can claim that no matter what happens, it simply proves the theory?”

    What else would you expect from people who behave as they do? (Stupid, stupid, stupid.)

  • JSpencer

    Good grief! The level of “grasp” here is even more puny than I thought (and believe me, I’ve been cutting a lot of slack for people – up until today that is).

    So it’s official then: Ideology trumps science. Time to cue up that old Groucho Marx song again…

  • DLS

    “So it’s official then: Ideology trumps science.”

    We have yet to have the global warming crowd be honest and admit that.

    • Don Quijote

      Temperatures in Past Decade Were Warmest Since 1880, NASA Says

      Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) — Temperatures in the decade that ended in 2009 were the warmest since record-keeping began in 1880, NASA said, backing up data from the U.K. Met Office and the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization.

      For the past three decades, surface temperatures rose about 0.36 degrees Fahrenheit (0.2 degrees Celsius) per decade, said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Average global temperatures have increased by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880.

      “It’s completely unambiguous that the last 10-year period from January 2000 to December 2009 is very clearly the warmest decade in the historical record,” Schmidt said yesterday.

      While 2008 was the coolest year of the decade because of a strong La Nina atmospheric condition that cooled the tropical Pacific Ocean, global temperatures returned to a near record in 2009, NASA said. The data puts 2009 almost in a tie with 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2007 for the second-warmest year on record.

      And the next decade will undoubtedly be warmer than the previous one…

  • DLS

    “the next decade will undoubtedly be warmer”

    You don’t know that, and nobody else does.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if it was (nor if it wasn’t). It wouldn’t surprise me if the next 20 years were (nor if they weren’t). In no case does it oblige or compel us to rush stupidly into a command-and-control, decarbonized-and-deindustrialized*, and PC-playpen economy and society.

    * Real-world description and substantiation: The shifting of industry from the West to China would acclerate and increase.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    Notice how the denialists point out statements from non-scientists about individual weather events proving something about global warming but not noticing that the actual climatologists whose work they dismiss agree that the statements like that are wrong. They would rather claim that the entire scientific establishment is completely wrong about climate change. They grasp at straws and make arguments that would never stand up to logical analysis. There is, in fact, no persuading them because they will never, ever acknowledge that the science will inevitably trump their ideology.

    • HemmD

      jim

      “2 people liked this.
      Notice how the denialists point out statements from non-scientists about individual weather events proving something about global warming but not noticing that the actual climatologists whose work they dismiss agree that the statements like that are wrong. ”

      Shall we quotye the IPCC where they have used non-peer reviewed, non-cited “evidence” in its annual reports?

      Please, Jim, explain how the hurricane scare of a few years was ago was not tha exact same kind “proof.”

      • Jim_Satterfield

        The hurricane scare? The climatologists said that you couldn’t link Katrina or any individual hurricane to global warming. A study said that it was possible that increased ocean temperatures due to global warming could produce more intense storms from the ones that the normal weather produces. Other scientists agreed, some others said there were mechanisms that might limit that. In the world of the scientists research is still going on. And yes, if you expect me to listen to you about this subject you need to provide full and exact quotes from the IPCC studies as well as what part of the studies they came from. No insinuations, no BS.

  • DLS

    “They would rather claim that the entire scientific establishment is completely wrong about climate change.”

    Well, that confirms I’m not a “denialist” (not that I ever was).

  • ProfElwood

    I’m getting tired of saying it:

    1. If CC is accurate, we need to start switching to alternate energy, to reduce its affects.
    2. If it’s not, we need to start switching to alternate energy, to improve security and self-reliance.

    Why are we still arguing this, instead of mapping out a plan for the future?

    • DaMav

      Well, I’m tired of saying it too. That is not the agenda of the Alarmists, that’s just a side show. We don’t need to spend tens of billions of dollars on ‘planning’ for Global Warming to do what you are proposing. We don’t need to tax carbon. We don’t need to set up a new bureaucracy to measure it. We don’t need to start paying ‘Climate Debt’ reparations, nor turn power over to the UN.

      Yet all these things are an integral part of the agenda of the Warmers.

      Go solar. Go nuclear. Go domestic coal and oil. Go wind. Crank out that energy. Only the extreme environ-Mental cases are opposed to that, not most skeptics.

      • ProfElwood

        That is not the agenda of the Alarmists

        Then force them to the punch. Advocate practical solutions for today, and come up with a good long term energy plan. If they’re really interested in energy solutions, they’ll jump on board; if they have some other agenda, they’ll either have to trot it out, or try to distract you. Right now, you’re playing their game.

    • Don Quijote

      Why are we still arguing this, instead of mapping out a plan for the future?

      Cause the Dirty F***en Hippies are for it…

    • Jim_Satterfield

      I don’t disagree with your statement, ProfElwood.

  • DLS

    “we need to start switching to alternate energy”

    Practical, economical alternates at hand now?

    • ProfElwood

      DLS, with minor incentives, or maybe with some military spending redirects, we could get the ball rolling. For instance, current solar panels capture only a small percentage of the sun’s energy. If people started buying more of them (preferably from US manufacturers), then market forces would put pressure on them to lower costs and improve efficiency. So even though solar panels aren’t popular now (it takes a couple of decades’ use to recoup their cost), the market would improve them.

      • HemmD

        Prof and DLS

        Switchgrass is the biomass that makes the most sense for alternative fuels, but it faces stiff Economic manipulation by existing industries (- read corn).

        http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=grass-makes-better-ethanol-than-corn

        The question that consistently fails to be addressed is the fact the both sides of this argument ignore the greed driving this debate politically. Let’s trade nuclear power for the carbon tax.

        One last thing. It’s foolish to see denialists as only right wingers and warmists as only tree hugging leftists. It’s just not that simple. The politics of my skepticism is logical, not ideological. DLS can verify that I’m one of those dirty liberals in many of my positions, and Kathy knows too well I have argued tooth and nail with her on other issues.

        Reducing the debate about AGW into mere position politics fails to really address the questions at hand. Lastly, I’m a skeptic, not a denialist. Equating the two blinds the label-er.

        • ProfElwood

          Reducing the debate about AGW into mere position politics fails to really address the questions at hand.

          I’m actually trying to rise above the politics here, and swing the discussion toward reasonable solutions. For instance, you mentioned corn subsidies, which has been a sore spot for me for many reasons (corporate welfare, unhealthy foods, and the effect on ethanol). AGW is debatable, but the downsides of oil dependency aren’t.

          • HemmD

            Prof
            ” AGW is debatable, but the downsides of oil dependency aren’t.”

            We are in total agreement here.

      • DLS

        Prof,

        “current solar panels capture only a small percentage of the sun’s energy”

        This is an ambiguous statement.  Solar energy use is small, and some want much more of it.  Fair enough.  But the statement is also true in that current photovoltaics and other devices aren’t efficient, notably not to the point where they are economical and practical.  I believe more R&D is the near-term future and likely medium-term future for solar energy.

        Many of us critics are interested in these energy sources (we often know more than the advocates), and want them to succeed as much or more than most of their devoted fans.  (We can really exploit this source in the Southwest — not only is it the place of most insolation, but large parts of it are at enough altitude to provide an additional yield we can count on, above sea-level power levels.)  But we must also be realistic.

        In addition to R&D, or adjunctive to it, I could see some governments choosing to be “test beds” for this.  (Just as they are for compressed natural gas, could be for propane, battery-powered vehicles, or fuel cells.)

        • ProfElwood

          Thank you. That’s the kind of thing that I’m trying to drag the conversation toward. This whole climate change argument strikes me as sitting in a house that’s on fire, and debating the effect it will have on the lighting. If everyone can agree to test beds for different technologies, let’s start there.

          Let’s get the areas of agreement going. If not here, then on the next 5 threads that show up tomorrow. . .

  • DLS

    Well, the proponents certainly aren’t welcomed by the Obama-pal crowd who might be hosts to it — but then again, those NIMBYs are too well-to-do to consider themselves other than professional hippies. (“Idyllic Island and Cape residents” is probably more to the opponents’ liking.)

    http://www.saveoursound.org/site/PageServer

    As far as renewable crops for biomass, where would we grow it? Why not think big and solve the West’s future water problems, with a super long-term “stimulus” project?

    wrri.nmsu.edu/publish/watcon/proc11/Kelly.pdf

    After all, it’s in an area that will receive so much population migration, intensifying the problems,

    biodiversity.ca.gov/Meetings/archive/water03/water2025.pdf

    which includes America’s Favorite Climate (voted for with all those feet over modern decades).

    unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0006/000682/068203eo.pdf

    [GRIN]

  • ProfElwood

    Hemmd: “We are in total agreement here.”
    Jim_Satterfield: “I don’t disagree with your statement, ProfElwood.”
    DLS, DaMav, others?
    Let’s debate the best way to get rid of oil dependency, and leave the oxqervy theorists behind us.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    I’ll do some more digging later…but did you even notice what those “cited papers” were? They appear to be addressing alternative energy sources for the most part, not climate change science. And that paper from Greenpeace that did address the state of the oceans? In the real world here’s some info about the author. And guess what? He does publish in peer reviewed journals.

  • Jim_Satterfield

    If you want people to take you seriously as someone whose skepticism is rational, I wouldn’t cite Watts’ web site. He’s a former TV weatherman whose opposition is far more political than scientific.

  • DLS

    “This whole climate change argument strikes me as sitting in a house that’s on fire, and debating the effect it will have on the lighting.”

    That’s not what’s happening at all, though some would actually say it is like that and we should respond accordingly. (We obviously shouldn’t.)

    “If everyone can agree to test beds for different technologies, let’s start there.”

    R&D, I’m all for. “Test beds” would also be demonstrations and public-relations and — political — tools (a double-edged sword, but that’s the way it works).

    • ProfElwood

      The “fire” in that example, was supposed to be our dependence on foreign oil. You know: Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, the oil embargo, … that kind of thing.

      • DLS

        “The “fire” in that example, was supposed to be our dependence on foreign oil.”

        OK, Professor.  I thought it was another “crisis” as “global warming” or “climate change” is wrongly presented.

        Note that in addition to working on other (and often cleaner!) transportation fuels like biofuels and future electric vehicles, we should be exploiting our own oil and gas resources, as well as coal, and converting coal to purer, cleaner synthetic liquid (and gas) fuels.

        For electricity production, the nature of solar and wind works against these (they’re intermittent as well as being diffuse).  But they merit pursuit, especially in R&D (and demo-test bed form) nevertheless.

        Believe me, I’ve viewed solar and wind positively in serious rather than political and emotional ways.  So much of the interior West is not only arid, but at high altitude, which is a double stroke against agriculture and settlement — it’s colder, reducing the growing season and reducing human comfort) but that altitude as well as aridity make for a double plus for solar insolation being received, and solar power.  (“What makes astronomers happy at night makes sunshine fans happy during the day.”)

        I’m not a government-planning advocate, but why not center solar radiation where it matters most, which also once again benefits California preferentially (brace ourselves for more envy and resentment of California, in such a case), which is in the Lower Colorado and Salton Trough area (greatest insolation and least precip in the 48)?  Gee, right next to already-existing cities as well as Caltech, JPL, UCLA, USC next door in the LA metro area?  Development along the Colorado might be boosted and something new could inject life, in particular, in one city just across the river and state boundary — Yuma, Arizona — the perfect place to set up a federal (or “national”) solar laboratory and to become the center of a new solar power industry.  Just thought I’d think aloud for a moment, the way others like Sil do sometimes…

        As far as biofuels, we need to find room to grow the feedstock, and that’s yet another reason to work to improve the water supply in the West.  The altitude (a minus for agriculture, despite some increase in precipitation) can’t be changed, but the aridity can be compensated for with irrigation.  We’ll need to improve supply anyway in the decades to come as the population continues largely to move south and west, and this is likely increased as the Baby Boomers retire.  (I’d also like to see the Colorado run to the Gulf.)  Of course, many would say that fallow Southeast and Midwest, and the Great Plains would be better for feedstock growth.

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