Just as the East Coast finished digging itself out from underneath Snowpocalypse: Part II, meteorologists for AccuWeather.com announced that this January will be the coldest since 1985. With another big snowstorm bearing down on the Northeast this weekend, climate change naysayers are once again asking, "Where's your global warming now?"
It's true — meteorologists project temperatures will be unusually cold across the country this month. The AccuWeather forecast calls for a rare snow in Seattle and Portland, days when the temperature will fail to top 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.6 degrees Celsius) in Dallas, or above zero Fahrenheit (-17.7 C) in Chicago and Denver. These are big swings from the norm, yes, but the occasional temperature spike or drop won't disappear with climate change.
"Climate change won't absolutely get rid of cold days, or even months, but we'll probably have fewer of them, and the ones that we do have will be less intense," said David Easterling, chief of the Scientific Services Division at NOAA's National Climatic Data Center. "So what if it's unusually cold since, wow, 1985? That's not a big deal in the context of time. Next year may be really warm, but you can't just take one winter and say, 'where's global warming now?'"
And then you have to look at those variations in a global context, not just where you're living. "For example, right now, most of Canada is warm, relatively speaking, because most of the cold air that is normally locked up there has moved south into the U.S., which is what's causing this cold streak," Easterling told Life's Little Mysteries.
Now, what about all that snow? "The fact that we had a lot of snow is not inconsistent with global warming," Easterling said. "Let's say it's 20 Fahrenheit and you get a few inches of snow. Well, at 29 Fahrenheit (-1.7 C), which is still below freezing, it's warmer, so there's more moisture in the air, so it can dump a lot more snow."
"This is especially true close to the coast, in places like New York and Washington, D.C.," he added. "Because the ocean isn't iced over, the storm can pick up more moisture to turn into snow."
The thing to keep in mind, Easterling added, whether you're a climate change supporter or someone who believes it's a hoax or just not backed by stringent-enough science, is that there will be ups and downs in weather patterns. It's the overall trend that matters, not the individual spikes. "If the climate continues on this trend, 50 years from now, the probability of a freeze in Florida will be much smaller than it is today," Easterling said. "But it could still happen."
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Life's Little Mysteries is a sister site to LiveScience.