Are the UAB snow days a product of global warming?

By on February 27, 2014
Group of students help car in snow.

Global warming naysayers state that the copious amount of cold weather recently serves as evidence that global warming is not happening. Many would cite the recent snow days as examples of this. However, snow in Alabama might prove to be one of the strongest piece of evidence for the case of global warming.

Recent data does not support what many people would call a global freezing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has reported that the ten warmest years on record occurred after 1997. Additionally, the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) states that the past few decades have were some of the warmest since 1000 AD. This supports the inference that researchers make: Observing specific instances of weather does not say climate. “You can’t tell much about the climate or where it’s headed by focusing on a particularly frigid day, or season, or year,” Eoin O’Carroll of Christian Science Monitor writes.

NOAA defines climate as average weather occurring over at least a 30-year period. Very contrarily, Merriam-Webster defines weather as the state of the air and atmosphere at a particular time and place. Obviously the two are very different, but then how exactly is global warming causing colder weather?

The answer to the previous question can be understood by examining the polar vortex.  In the winter, Arctic atmosphere stops seeing the sun and cools down dramatically. The warmer air of the south becomes much hotter than the Arctic air creating a temperature gradient causing cold air to flow around the polar caps as jet streams in the form of a vortex trapping the cold air at the poles.

Some of the largest global warming of the past years has occurred in the Arctic that was even further warmed during a massive collapse of polar ice in 2007. Obviously, loss of ice contributes to a warmer area, but the loss of ice also exposes once dark polar waters to sunlight, allowing them to absorb heat and further warm the Arctic. A lesser-known secondary effect of Arctic warming is the formation of Arctic clouds. Normally clouds have a dual effect of temperature by insulating the earth but also reflecting sunlight back into space. However, since the Arctic goes for long periods without sunlight, the clouds that form only serve as heat insulators. Together these two phenomena contribute to what is known as the Arctic amplification. According to Dr. Jennifer Francis of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Rutgers University, the changes in the polar vortex coupled with the Arctic amplification means bad news for the rest of the world in terms of cold weather.

Dr. Francis suggests that the increase in the Arctic weather is lessening the gradient between the boundary of the polar vortex and the rest of the earth. This is causing less cold air to be trapped in the Arctic and allowing it to flow over the rest of the earth. Subsequently, the slower jet streams created by the decrease in in temperature gradient moves cold air more slowly allowing it to stay in areas for longer periods of time.

Though the snow brought by the cold front is undeniably beautiful, the frightening loss of the polar caps, coupled with unnaturally cold weather, may be a cause for alarm.

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