Last week’s “polar vortex” gave many of the nation’s schoolchildren an extension on their winter break, but it also gave climate deniers an opportunity to smugly conclude that two days of cold temperatures mean that climate change must be a hoax. Even some members of Congress had something snarky to say about the dangerous icy blast that has been blamed for the deaths of over 17 people. Fortunately, not everyone is that cavalier, or delusional. As climate scientists have stated multiple times over the past week, the polar vortex doesn’t disprove climate change in the least.
“Weather is what’s happening outside the door right now,” the Union of Concerned Scientists reminds us. “Climate, on the other hand, is the pattern of weather over decades.” And as just about everyone knows, over time, the decades-long trend in the Arctic could have a very big effect on the weather in our continent.
The Arctic is warming at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the planet. As temperatures climb, we’re losing more of the arctic sea ice that helps stabilize global temperatures (and which is critical to the survival of species like the polar bear and walrus). As a result, the difference in temperatures between the Arctic and the lower latitudes is getting smaller and smaller.
This temperature contrast is important because it drives the atmospheric “river” of wind we call the jet stream. When the temperature difference is high, the jet stream behaves like a mountain stream, flowing fast and fairly straight around the northern latitudes “corralling” the swirling cold air close to the North Pole. When the temperature gradient is lower, the jet stream can meander like a river on a flat plain, allowing icy blasts to push south. But while last week brought the coldest temperatures in two decades to many regions and set a number of daily records, it was by no means unprecedented. And as the jet stream “river” meanders back north, parts of the Northeast could see temperatures approaching record highs.
When we think of the extreme weather, we usually visualize hurricanes, flooding and drought. The polar vortex falls into this same category: irregular, potentially damaging, and likely to be a fact of life as the earth’s warming trend continues. Extreme weather affects all of us: both people and wildlife struggle when temperatures plummet, as well as when they spike. The polar vortex is an extra reminder that the catastrophic rate of warming in the Arctic has a huge effect on the rest of the world.
What global warming deniers need to do is cut the nonsense, stop debating each and every weather event and look at the big picture. There is near unanimous agreement among scientists that global warming is happening and that humans are major contributing factor. Three days of bone-chilling temperatures doesn’t change that, let alone disprove decades of climate trends. And it’s going to take a serious, long-term global effort to address climate change and its effects. That’s our only chance to protect arctic wildlife and other species vulnerable to the effects of climate change. And it’s our only chance of preventing extreme weather like polar vortexes from becoming more frequent.
Fortunately, while the deniers were busy sounding off, responsible lawmakers were hard at work. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) announced just yesterday that they’ve formed a new Climate Action Task Force for addressing global warming in the United States, and will publicize their full agenda on Tuesday. It’s exactly what we need and should expect from our nation’s leaders.
As for the weather? Well, the temperature reached nearly 60 degrees in the D.C. metro area on Saturday. Will a few warm days prove to denialists that global warming is real? We won’t bet our winter coats on it.
Haley McKey, Communications Associate