Does A Cold Winter Mean That Global Warming Is Bunk?

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Don’t all these huge snow and ice storms across the country mean that the globe isn’t really warming? I’ve never seen such a winter!

On the surface it certainly can appear that way. But just because some of us are suffering through a particularly cold and snowy winter doesn’t refute the fact that the globe is warming as we continue to pump carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997. And the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) reports that recent decades have been the warmest since at least around 1000 AD, and that the warming we’ve seen since the late 19th century is unprecedented over the last 1,000 years.

“You can’t tell much about the climate or where it’s headed by focusing on a particularly frigid day, or season, or year, even,” writes Eoin O’Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s all in the long-term trends,” concurs Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Most scientists agree that we need to differentiate between weather and climate. The NOAA defines climate as the average of weather over at least a 30-year period. So periodic aberrations ”like the harsh winter storms ravaging the Southeast and other parts of the country this winter” do not call the science of human-induced global warming into question.

The flip side of the question, of course, is whether global warming is at least partly to blame for especially harsh winter weather. As we pointed out in a recent EarthTalk column, warmer temperatures in the winter of 2006 caused Lake Erie to not freeze for the first time in its history. This actually led to increased snowfalls because more evaporating water from the lake was available for precipitation.

But while more extreme weather events of all kinds – from snowstorms to hurricanes to droughts – are likely side effects of a climate in transition, most scientists maintain that any year-to-year variation in weather cannot be linked directly to either a warming or cooling climate.

Even most global warming skeptics agree that a specific cold snap or freak storm doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not the climate problem is real. One such skeptic, Jimmy Hogan of the Rational Environmentalist website writes, “If we are throwing out anecdotal evidence that refutes global warming we must at the same time throw out anecdotal evidence that supports it.” He cites environmental groups holding up Hurricane Katrina as proof of global warming as one example of the latter.

If nothing else, we should all keep in mind that every time we turn up the thermostat this winter to combat the cold, we are contributing to global warming by consuming more fossil fuel power. Until we can shift our economy over to greener energy sources, global warming will be a problem, regardless of how warm or cold it is outside.

CONTACTS: NASA; NOAA.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 USA; submit it at EarthTalk; or e-mail us. Read past columns at our archives.

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Comments

  1. A good article on a common misconception.

    It’s also important to remember that global warming doesn’t just mean higher average temperatures…it also increases the variability in seasonal temperatures and even rainfall. That means more intense weather invents, like floods and droughts, and longer heat waves and cold snaps.

  2. Here in Britain, we moan about the weather constantly. It’s almost common knowledge that if the world on average heats up, in the UK it will probably get colder. And wetter. Partly, that’s just because we’d all like to be warmer, and we’re miserable, but also because we are reliant on the Gulf Stream. Global warming is likely to have different local effects.

  3. The only thing that a cold winter proves is that temperatures always fluctuate. Temperatures that go up, always come down. There have been times in history both warmer and colder than what we are dealing with now.

    Okay, so the GW people have been predicting doom for about 20 to 25 years now – since the late 1980’s. I actually believed in man-made GW in the early 1990’s, but eventually the proponents were so hypocritical and the evidence just did not seem to add up. I could list other reasons, but I eventually decided that it had to be a made-up crisis.

    I am curious as to what it would take for you to consider that man-made GW does not exist. Quantify it – how many years of global cooling? How many cold winters?

    Right now, GW advocates explain away global cooling, cold winters, growing glaciers and the huge carbon footprints created by Al Gore and other globe trotting elitist proponents of GW. Every phenomenon supposedly fits the theory. It is not falsifiable

    Maybe this should be a blog post – in order to demonstrate your unbiased assessment of the facts, describe to your readers the conditions under which you might admit that man-made global warming does not exist.

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