Debunking: "Record-Setting Cold & Snow Disproves Global Warming!"

 

Thumbnail photos: C-SPAN/C-SPAN; cwizner/Pixabay

 

The idea that a few exceptionally cold or snowy days disprove or count as evidence against global warming seems like such a painfully idiotic argument that even a developing fetus could explain what's wrong with it. Yet every time there's some sort of unseasonal snow-storm or record-breaking cold day, climate-change deniers invariably crawl out of the woodwork to make this argument, whether they're just random people on the internet or some of the highest elected officials in the United States. 

In addition to explaining here what's wrong with these kinds of arguments, I'm also going to point out how global warming can actually exacerbate certain cold-weather events. And, finally, I'm going to break down and refute some arguments made by a climate change denier on subjects like Arctic sea ice, Al Gore, and so forth.

Let's start off by looking at some examples of this argument being made. The renowned non-climatologist Donald Trump, who unfortunately is our current president, wrote the following on Twitter in February of 2014:

 

"A big part of the country, even the southern states, is under massive attack from snow and freezing cold. Global warming anyone?"

 

My goodness: Snow and freezing weather in February? That is just completely unheard of!

In December 2013, he wrote that:

 

"Denver, Minnesota and others are bracing for some of the coldest weather on record. What are the global warming geniuses saying about this?"

 

And, as a final example, in July of 2014 he wrote:

 

"Record cold temperatures in July - 20 to 30 degrees colder than normal. What the hell happened to GLOBAL WARMING?"

 

And he's not the only member of the government to make these kinds of arguments; as another example, Sen. James Inhofe (Republican of Oklahoma) notoriously brought a snowball into the Senate as if this is evidence of anything:

 

"In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, do you know what this is? It's a snowball, just from outside here. So it's very, very cold out. Very unseasonal. [throws snowball to chairman]"

 

Take that, climate scientists! Maybe next time he'll astonish his captive onlookers by sticking his tongue to a frozen metal pole or something? That would really get the point across.

Could you imagine someone trying to publish such ludicrous fallacies in a reputable climatology journal?

By Donald J. Trump & James Inhofe et al, published in Climate Dynamics, 2018:  "Why The Ice On My Windshield Disproves The FAKE NEWS Global Warming CON," subtitled "Climate Change HOAXSTERS Have Nothing To Say Now After I Showed Them My Snowball! #MakeScienceGreatAgain."

I bet something as brilliant as this would just sail through the peer-review process and make it to the front page of Nature in no time; in fact, it might even warrant a Nobel Prize or two!

Here's the problem with this line of reasoning: When we talk about global warming, we're talking about a long-term trend here. Within this long-term trend of increasing temperatures, there could be record-setting cold temperatures on certain days of the year. Even if it's 20 degrees colder on Cinco de Mayo than it's been in the past 100 years, the recorded temperature on 1 day out of the 365 in a year just isn't going to have that much of an impact on the yearly average temperature. "This year it was the coldest Cinco de Mayo on record" is not mutually exclusive with "it was the hottest year on record"—because the big-picture trend depends upon what happened on every day of the year considered collectively

By analogy, imagine that I'm a financially responsible person who carefully tracks his spending. On one particular day of this year, I spent more money than I have on any other day of my entire life (chances are, in this country, that means I was paying for either college textbooks or some kind of minor medical visit.) What does this extravagant spending on one day of the year tell us about my overall income and general saving habits? What does it tell us about how much I've managed to save up this year, and how this compares to the previous years? Absolutely nothing, because this is just one data point viewed in isolation.

This argument becomes even more absurd when you consider that many of these record-setting cold weather events are taking place in restricted geographical areas. For example, it was a major news story that New Year's Eve of 2017 was one of the coldest in the Eastern US in recorded history. And not surprisingly, these headlines prompted Donald Trump to pick up his phone with his grubby fingers to Tweet that:

 

"In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against."

 

Ok, it's one of the coldest New Year's Eves on record in the Eastern United States. What about the Western United States? What about South America? Africa? Europe? Asia—and the rest of the world? This is pure laziness on Donald Trump's part: He could've just called some of his buddies in Russia to learn first-hand what temperatures were like over there!

Here we see global temperature data from January 1, 2018, and while yes, the Eastern United States is noticeably colder than the baseline temperatures, much of the globe is clearly warmer than these baseline temperatures.

This is why it's important to ask: What are the temperature measurements like, globally? There could be record-setting cold in one region of the globe, yet the global average could be normal or even above normal. In fact, I see no reason why there couldn't be record-setting cold in, say, the Eastern United States, yet at the exact same time, there's record-setting heat in sub-Saharan Africa and Western Australia. Looking at just one region of one country doesn't tell us anything about what's happening globally—similar to how just looking at one day doesn't tell us anything about what's happening long-term.

And sometimes it's not even record-setting cold weather that prompts arguments of this sort; recall that Trump Tweeted in February 2014 that: 

 

"A big part of the country, even the southern states, is under massive attack from snow and freezing cold. Global warming anyone?"

 

He's basically just saying here: It's very cold and snowy outside, even down south. Ok? So what? What, exactly, do these people think that global warming means? That the second the temperature starts increasing, we should never experience a cold or snowy day again? Apparently the entire world must become a barren, dusty, sun-baked wasteland before people like this will concede that global warming is taking place.

How about stepping out of the realm of personal experience and short-term weather events, and just taking a look at the global temperature measurements over time?

NASA temperature recordings since 1880 demonstrate a very clear upward trend over time. "Oh yeah? Well did you know that on one particular day in 2002, it was very cold in the Southwestern United States?" To discount this clear long-term data because of isolated cold weather events is to abandon rationality.

And why do we never hear the reverse argument from these people? Why does Donald Trump never argue that, since it's 105 degrees in April, that must prove global warming to be true? Why do they never shine a spotlight on record-setting hot weather events—which there are plenty of? Of course, if we were just looking at one particular weather event, the reverse logic would be equally as junky, but at least they'd be being consistent. People like Trump are selectively focusing on only the data that they mistakenly think supports their case and ignoring anything that contradicts it.

There is a way to look at record-setting highs and lows rationally, and that's to look at the totality of the data—as opposed to just cherrypicking a few points in a self-serving manner. As we read on ClimateRealityProject.org

 

"While we have seen some daily all-time lows for a smattering of locations in the US, these pale in comparison with the number of all-time highs we’ve seen over the past year. In fact, the record highs have outpaced the record lows 61 to seven, i.e. nine times more often . . . consistent with what we expect to see as the globe continues to warm."

 

And it may seem paradoxical, but an increase in certain cold-weather events can actually be linked to global warming. This is an idea that climate change deniers love to mock from their standard position of extreme ignorance, but if you actually understand the underlying science, it makes perfect sense. 

As one example, we read the following on InsideClimateNews.org,

 

"The northern polar jet stream . . . is driven partly by the temperature contrast between masses of icy air over the North Pole and warmer air near the equator. Climate change, true to the predictions of the past half century, has led to faster warming in the Arctic than in the temperate zones. So the temperature difference between the two regions has been lessening.

Research suggests that this reduction in the temperature difference is robbing the jet stream of some of its strength, making it wobblier and contributing to more temperature extremes."

 

There's also a great article on this subject at ClimateRealityProject.org. As Michael Mann writes, 

 

"Let’s start with the record five-plus feet of snowfall accumulation in Erie, Pennsylvania, in late December. Does this disprove global warming? 'Exactly the opposite,' explains my colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. 

Global warming is leading to later freeze-up of the Great Lakes and warmer lake temperatures. It is the collision of cold Arctic air with relatively warm unfrozen lake water in early winter that causes lake effect snows in the first place. The warmer those lake temperatures, the more moisture in the air, and the greater potential for lake effect snows. Not surprisingly, we see a long-term increase in lake effect snowfalls as temperatures have warmed during the last century."

 

And here we see a graph demonstrating this trend.

A similar phenomenon takes place on the East Coast of the United States. As Mann also writes,

 

"East Coast winter storms, known as 'nor’easters' . . . are unusual in that they derive their energy not just from large contrasts in temperature that drive most extratropical storm systems, but also from the energy released when water evaporates from the (relatively warm) ocean surface into the atmosphere.

This is a characteristic that these storms share with tropical storms and hurricanes. The warmer the ocean surface, the more energy that is available to intensify these storms. And the warmer the ocean surface, the more moisture there is in the atmosphere – moisture that is available to form precipitation. As the winds wrap around in a counter-clockwise manner, they bring all of that moisture northwest, where it is chilled and ultimately falls not as rain but snow."

 

Joseph Curl, of the Daily Wire, encourages his readers to have at a laugh at this idea in his article entitled: "AL GORE SAYS DUMBEST THING EVER: Global Warming Means Bitter Cold." Here he's referring to that previously quoted Michael Mann article, and while he feels confident enough to describe this idea as the "DUMBEST THING EVER" (in all caps), he makes absolutely zero effort to contend with the scientific claims made within the article.

He starts out by showing a Tweet posted by Al Gore where he shared that Climate Reality Project article. Then Curl writes the following:

 

"That's right, Gore is saying this 'weather' we're having proves that the 'climate' is changing."

 

This is, of course, a reference to the idea that individual weather events can't be described as directly, necessarily caused by climate change. Yes, while we can't say that one particular snow storm was caused by global warming, we can say that—as a result of these mechanisms—the overall incidence and severity of these types of snowstorms will increase over time. There's no contradiction or problem here, and you'll have to excuse Al Gore for not making that careful, nuanced distinction in his 140 character Tweet.

Curl then points out that Al Gore has been wrong about one particular global-warming related claim in the past.

 

"Gore, you'll remember, famously said 'the entire North Polarized cap will disappear in 5 years.' That was in 2008. We haven't been there ourselves to check, but we're pretty sure the polar ice cap is still there."

 

Ok, so the consequences of global warming haven't materialized as rapidly as some expected them to. This doesn't prove that global warming isn't happening. "Ha-ha! Arctic ice isn't melting as fast as this guy said it would"—even though it's still totally melting, as the scientific data makes absolutely clear to anybody who takes five fucking seconds to Google this and check!

According to data from NASA and the National Snow & Ice Data Center, as of 1980, the average September extent of Arctic sea ice was about 7.5 million sq. km; as of 2017—not even 40 years later—it's down to about 4.5 million sq. km. This is almost a reduction in half—in just 40 years. "We're pretty sure the polar ice cap is still there"—yeah, it's there, and it's melting—rapidly—as the data makes clear to anybody who cares to examine it. 

To his credit, Joseph Curl did muster the energy to Google something, however. As he continues,

 

"We did find this on the Interwebs: 'Ice growth during November 2017 averaged 30,900 square miles per day,' according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center."

 

And here he showcases how truly, embarrasingly ignorant he is about the subject—assuming he's not being intentionally deceptive. Anybody who knows anything about Arctic ice will tell you that there is an annual, seasonal pattern of much of the ice melting during the Arctic summer and then re-freezing during the Arctic winter. This is fact #3 that you should know about Arctic ice—#1 being that it's ice, #2 that it's in the Arctic.

The way he presents this quote makes it seem like Arctic ice is actually increasing in extent overall: "It's not melting; it's growing! Just look at the data!" I have no doubt that many in his audience interpreted the quote in this way and added this idea to the library of falsehoods that they have downloaded into their minds. This quote, however, is simply referring to the seasonal trend that always takes place during the Arctic winter. As we read on the National Snow & Ice Data Center—the same organization that he's quoting from:

 

"The Arctic sea ice maximum marks the day of the year when Arctic sea ice reaches its largest extent. The sea ice maximum occurs at the end of the winter cold season. The Arctic cold season usually begins in September and ends in March."

 

Given that November is squarely within the Arctic cold season, ice growth during this part of the year is to be expected—and seasonal ice growth does not refute the idea of overall, year-round ice shrinkage. As this same organization also writes—the organization whose data he's trying to use to refute the idea of ice melting: 

 

"According to scientific measurements, both the thickness and extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic have shown a dramatic decline over the past thirty years."

 

What is the average yearly extent of Arctic ice?—That is the informative question to ask, and the measurements unequivocally demonstrate that Arctic ice is shrinking over time.

But the more basic point Joseph Curl makes is a foolish one: Al Gore was wrong about something once; therefore, what, he must be wrong about this other thing, too? This is not how truth works: Each claim needs to be independently evaluated. If I mistakenly tell you that Frank is wearing a hat today when he's actually not wearing one, that doesn't automatically make me incorrect when I say the sky is blue—or when I say that the stupidity of this article makes me want to hang myself from a ceiling fan.

And Al Gore isn't even the author of that article; he's just sharing it on Twitter, so what does him being incorrect about one particular prediction have to do with the conclusions reached in an article that wasn't even written by him? 

The only quotes from that Climate Reality Project article that Curl cares to present are quotes that simply state the conclusions reached; he doesn't share any of the sections that go about plainly demonstrating the truth of these conclusions. He also doesn't care to explain to his readers how the proposed mechanisms actually wouldn't work that way. Instead of grappling with the scientific ideas discussed in the article, instead of attempting to refute the conclusions reached by providing scientific references of his own, Joseph Curl offers a devastating refutation of these ideas by sharing a few Tweets where people were making fun of Al Gore.

"Durr, look at this frozen boat, the USS Al Gore." Why actually study the scientific evidence when I can just post some stupid meme?

"Al Gore said the ice would be melted by now but it's not!"—even though it's still melting at an alarming rate as I'd quickly discover if I got off Twitter and actually did some fucking research!

These people clearly have no idea what they're talking about, and neither does Joseph Curl. These are perfectly reasonable and well-supported scientific explanations for how global warming could exacerbate certain localized cold-weather events, and nothing within his article remotely approached even attempting to refute these ideas. Going forward, in order to avoid further embarrassment, Joseph Curl should do the world a favor and write about anything that's not science. 

On top of that, despite what certain brainless, high-level politicians will argue, the idea that record-setting snowfall or cold somehow disproves global warming is a ridiculous one. The long-term, global measurements clearly demonstrate that global warming is occurring, and short-term events restricted to particular geographical areas do nothing to overturn this data.