Climate Change Might Just Be Driving the Historic Cold Snap

Climate change skeptics are pointing to the record cold weather as evidence that the globe isn't warming. But it could be that melting Arctic ice is making sudden cold snaps more likely—not less

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Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Fans in Green Bay suffered through frigid temperatures, thanks to Arctic air that has come south

It’s polar bear weather today for much of the Midwest. Temperatures are in the -20sº F (-28º C) and -30sº F (-35º C) in eastern Montana, North Dakota, northeast South Dakota, Minnesota and northern Iowa. With the stiff wind, it’s even worse—wind chills in the -40sº F (-40º C) and -50sº F (-45º C) are common across Minnesota and North Dakota, cold enough for exposed skin to suffer frostbite in just five minutes. By tonight, the freeze will reach the East Coast, where temperatures from Florida to Maine are expected to be 30º F to 40º F (16º C to 22º C) degrees below normal, extremes that haven’t been seen in decades. The National Weather Service isn’t kidding when it calls the cold “life-threatening.”

Unsurprisingly, the extreme cold has brought out the climate change skeptics, who point to the freeze and the recent snowstorms and say, essentially, “nyah-nyah.” Now this is where I would usually point to the fact that the occasional cold snap—even one as extreme as much of the U.S. is experiencing now—doesn’t change the overall trajectory of a warming planet. Weather is what happens in the atmosphere day to day; climate is how the atmosphere behaves over long periods of time. Winters in the U.S. have been warming steadily over the past century, and even faster in recent decades, so it would take more than a few sub-zero days to cancel that out.

(MORE: Arctic Blast: The Northern Air Mass Bringing Record-Breaking Cold to the U.S.)

But not only does the cold spell not disprove climate change, it may well be that global warming could be making the occasional bout of extreme cold weather in the U.S. even more likely. Right now much of the U.S. is in the grip of a polar vortex, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a whirlwind of extremely cold, extremely dense air that forms near the poles. Usually the fast winds in the vortex—which can top 100 mph (161 k/h)—keep that cold air locked up in the Arctic. But when the winds weaken, the vortex can begin to wobble like a drunk on his fourth martini, and the Arctic air can escape and spill southward, bringing Arctic weather with it. In this case, nearly the entire polar vortex has tumbled southward, leading to record-breaking cold, as you can see in this graphic:

Graphic showing a simulation of the polar vortex over the Great Lakes on Monday night (]

That disruption to the polar vortex may have been triggered by a sudden stratospheric warming event, a phenomenon Rick Grow explained at the Washington Post a few days ago:

Large atmospheric waves move upward from the troposphere — where most weather occurs — into the stratosphere, which is the layer of air above the troposphere. These waves, which are called Rossby waves, transport energy and momentum from the troposphere to the stratosphere. This energy and momentum transfer generates a circulation in the stratosphere, which features sinking air in the polar latitudes and rising air in the lowest latitudes. As air sinks, it warms. If the stratospheric air warms rapidly in the Arctic, it will throw the circulation off balance. This can cause a major disruption to the polar vortex, stretching it and — sometimes — splitting it apart.

(MORE: November Was Cold, But the Climate Keeps Warming)

What does that have to do with climate change? Sea ice is vanishing from the Arctic thanks to climate change, which leaves behind dark open ocean water, which absorbs more of the heat from the sun than reflective ice. That in turn is helping to cause the Arctic to warm faster than the rest of the planet, almost twice the global average. The jet stream—the belt of fast-flowing, westerly winds that essentially serves as the boundary between cold northern air and warmer southern air—is driven by temperature difference between the northerly latitudes and the tropical ones. Some scientists theorize that as that temperature difference narrows, it may weaken the jet stream, which in turns makes it more likely that cold Arctic air will escape the polar vortex and flow southward. Right now, an unusually large kink in the jet stream has that Arctic air flowing much further south than it usually would.

Still, this research is fairly preliminary, in part because extreme Arctic sea ice loss is a fairly recent phenomenon, so scientists don’t have the long data sets they need to draw more robust conclusions about the interaction between Arctic warming and cold snaps. In fact, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that it was likely that the jet stream would shift towards the north as the climate warmed, and that the polar vortex would actually contract, even as a 2009 study found that sudden stratospheric warming events are becoming more frequent, which in turn seems to be driven by the rapid loss in Arctic sea ice.

And while a muddle like that would seem to make the science less rather than more reliable, it’s actually one more bit of proof that climate change is real. Global warming is sometimes thought of more as “global weirding,” with all manner of complex disruptions occurring over time. This week’s events show that climate change is almost certainly screwing with weather patterns ways that go beyond mere increases in temperature—meaning that you’d be smart to hold onto those winter coats for a while longer.

(MORE: November Was Cold, But the Climate Keeps Warming)


I recently realized a gap in this discovery:  The melting arctic ice is causing the arctic air to enter North America, right?  And the melting arctic ice is caused by a warming arctic, right?

Well, if that's so, then how come the arctic air that we recieve is so friggin cold?  Shouldn't the arctic air be hot?  They said themselves that it is polar bear whether in North America, and if the arctic is getting too warm for polar bears, then where is this "polar bear whether" coming from? 

I'm going to go back to my habits as a kid and say "whoo hoo!  Bring on the cold!  The planet is not too hot yet!"


@HannahPapernick-Yudin the warming actic doesn't mean the warm arctic lol the poles are still far colder than everywhere else on the planet


Maybe these climate change guys and gals can explain why the Arctic had a tropical climate not that long ago. Tons of dinosaur bones have been found up there! I thought the Earth has NEVER been warmer than now!


@Gliderguy No one ever said it hasn't been hotter than now... the earth used to have literal oceans of molten lava. It's just the hottest since we as a race started recording temperatures lol come on mate at least try and put some thought into it...


Just another alarmist spin. Everything that happens is because of global warming. Harsh winters, mild winters, hot summers, cool summers, hot spells, cold spells, more droughts, less droughts, more floods, less floods, more severe weather, less severe weather, any severe weather, more hurricanes, less hurricanes, strong hurricanes, weak hurricanes, any individual hurricane, higher ocean depths, lower ocean depths, any change in ocean depths, oceans absorbing heat, oceans reflecting heat, any ocean heat, more arctic ice, less arctic ice, any change in arctic ice, are ALL caused by anthropogenic forcing. Get my point yet? According to the alarmists EVERYTHING causes global warming. I think I’ll just let history tell us the correct answer that most of us already know…NATURAL VARIATIONS! Enjoy the interglacial warmth while it lasts before the next deep freeze!

Short term climate may be warming (not much the last 18 years though) but long term climate is cooling. In case you haven't heard we are in an Quaternary Ice Age and are about 20,000 years removed from the Last Glacial Maximum, the last glacial period of the Pleistocene Epoch ~ 110,000-12,000 YBP! LONG term climate actually says we have been cooling for the last 2.6 million years. The current 10,000-15,000 year interglacial is a temporary respite. Why would anyone want it to get colder again? Humans and vegetation are thriving. This respite won't last much longer. 


'doesn’t change the overall trajectory of a warming planet.'
but its been almost 20 years since it has warmed...
If its hot, or there is a storm, a drought, or a fire, it is PROOF of GW though...


So because temperatures have been dropping in much of the country the last few winters, that's evidence of global warming.  I'm fairly certain that if temperatures had been rising the last several years THAT also would've been taken as evidence of global warming. So the "science" of global warming can't be disproved.

You moonbats do realize that a theory that can't be disproved isn't science, it's dogma; don't you?


@asc You do realize that's fallacious reasoning (Argumentum ad Ignorantiam), don't you?


@asc The science of GLOBAL warming could be disproved if GLOBAL temperatures were dropping. This country doesn't make up the entire world. The fact that one small LOCAL area was chilly, doesn't do anything to disprove GLOBAL warming.


The big problem is that all these predictions that the Global Warmists have made, have not come true. Sometimes it has been opposite of what they said. Now they want to continue telling us what is going on? This is rediculous. It is quite obvious that a fight over who  is going to contol the energy supply for  the next 100 years is on. There is a lot of BS out there.


"the occasional cold snap—even one as extreme as much of the U.S. is experiencing now—doesn’t change the overall trajectory of a warming planet."

Correct, but eighteen years of no statistically significant warming, coupled with a steadily rising atmospheric C02 concentrations, does, or at least gives the strong appearance of starting to do so. Your article presents NO evidence for the bold claim that warming is continuing, when a large number of qualified persons now attest that it is not. This whole global warming meme is going to bite the environmental movement on the ass before it is done.


@RogerStritmatter   IF the planet is getting warmer because of CO2 emissions why was it necessary for the GISS to alter historical climate data to make the past colder and the near present warmer?

IF the climate is getting warming because of CO2 emissions  why do the climate models predict that the planets average surface temperature should be about 3 degrees warmer today whereas temperature observations  (and sometimes tampered surface readings) show less than one half degree warming over the last 3 decades. And the last 15 years its pretty flat.  

If the planet is warming because of CO2 emissions why did the "Climategate" email fiasco expose lies,  data tampering and collusion by certain US and UK climate research groups. 

The last decade saw some of the coldest winters in the last 50 years, this is not indicative of a warming world. Thirty years ago J Hanson, in front of Congress, said winters would be mild and there would be the absence of snow of snowcover except for the extreme northern boundaries of the USA. Well, we all know how well those predictions turned out. The Great Lakes were ice covered until sometime in June!

The truth is a little more CO2 in our atmosphere might be a good thing for a growing world population that depends on agriculture for feeding its people. In 10 years when there still is no significant warming and CO2 emissions reach 425 ppm this crime against humanity will come to an end. There are so many liberals getting rich on "climate science and carbon trading" . I'm sure there is another "Jonathan Gruber" type person lurking in the shadows behind the AGW scam.  I only hope the American people wake up and revolt protest any of the proposed EPA draconian measures. 

The irony is probably the  opposite is happening - we're on the brink of entering a colder climate pattern for decades to come.  God forbid this greatly reduces our growing seasons.


@Arthur123 @RogerStritmatter  Google "ocean acidification" if you that more CO2 in our atmosphere isn't a problem.


Global warming is pretty much accepted across the board by scientists and more educated individuals. I fail to see why, beyond the staggeringly pitiful intellect of the average American, we should be trying to prove already proven global warming again in an article showing the cold snap was caused by unusual warming.


i agree with don.kwasny. Why did the last ice age melt,where all the cave men and dinosaures driving around in cars to disrupt the ozone?


There used to be dinosaurs in Alberta 100 BC or so . This has been the coldest winter in years and still people are talking about "global warming" . Give me a break . The earths climate changes . It has done so for centuries .  No I do not want to pay a carbon tax to make Al Gore even richer .


I see all of the paid trolls are out, along with some poor mislead people.

Folks, we ignore climate change at our peril.  There is enough evidence to warrant immediate action, and yes, the best way to do that in a capitalist system is through a tax on what we are producing too much of: carbon dioxide.

Such a carbon tax is not the end of the world, or even the worst thing that could ever happen.  Government taxes us all the time, and it could even reduce other taxes -- which is actually a pretty popular idea being discussed now.  That's called "revenue-neutral", because it shifts incentives without increasing revenues.  It could even be a boon to some who are willing to reduce their fossil fuel consumption and pocket the difference.

The pain will be minimal to consumers, especially if the tax is increased gradually, and as we shift into renewable energy which will be encouraged as these means become more economically competetive -- which is already happening.  The tax will reward innovators and their customers who choose to switch over.

Those who do not, well they are free to consume to their hearts content -- as long as they pay for the privilege of dumping their waste into everyone's air.  Simple concept.  Economists even have names for it: the CO2 is called an "economic externality" and the tax is said to be a "Pigovian Tax".

Who it will hurt are fossil fuel interests, predominately, like the large coal producers, the oil companies and OPEC.  Yes, did you know that the Arabs are funding denial?  Stands to reason doesn't it?  So you patriotic Americans chanting "USA, USA,...", as some Romney supporters did last election cycle, are actually playing into the hands of OPEC.

I hope we can wake up and take action today, before we get too close to any tipping point.



The same people who pay for and are hurt most by a "carbon tax" are the same people who now pay $4.25 for a gallon of gas that they paid $1.25 for in the 1990s: middle and lower class Americans.  Taxing "fossil fuel interests" really just means taxing "regular Americans," because the fossil fuel industries will a) raise their prices to offset any new costs (taxes), b) cut employees and lay off hundreds of thousands (or millions) of American workers, c) take their companies elsewhere where there are fewer taxes and less regulation, and/or d) close up shop and allow fossil fuel energies to be produced in less eco-friendly countries (the Middle East).    In other words, a carbon tax only serves to hurt the average American family.

The vast majority of energy subsidies---$billions of dollars worth---are given to renewable energy companies as it is.   Wind, solar, and biofuels can't drive the nation's economy.  They're not nearly as efficient as fossil fuel combustion when it comes to producing energy.    We haven't got a replacement for fossil fuel energies yet.  Until we do, taxing them won't make the emissions "problem" go away.   All it will mean is we regular Americans will have to pay more to drive, fly, heat, cool, and power our existence..  

Look at the below graph:

Notice how the U.S. has led all other nations in reducing its CO2 emissions since 2005---without a carbon tax.   In fact, the U.S. has reduced its carbon emissions more than all of Europe combined.   

But look at China.   There's a new coal plant built every week there.   From 2000 to 2010, the number of Chinese who owned cars doubled.   By 2030, it'll double again.   In fact, by the year 2030, there will be more cars driven in China alone than the number of cars that existed in the entire world in 2000.   And every single day, 95,500 new cars are added to the world's roads, with nearly half of those additions in China.   

Levying taxes on energy companies in America is going to do what, exactly, to curb *worldwide* CO2 emissions relative to what's happening in places like China (and India and Russia)?

Fortunately, CO2 is not a primary driver of temperatures or climate.   It's a trace gas (just 1/100ths of 1% more CO2 has been added to the atmospheric content in the last 115 years), and it's thoroughly outweighed by natural climate-forcing factors like sun variations, cosmic rays, ocean cycles, water vapor/clouds, etc. in determining weather and climate change---just like it has been for millions of years before humans came along.   That we humans think we can dramatically (and catastrophically) change the earth's weather and climate by burning more or less fossil fuels is quite naive.   



I see you are at it again, twinkletoes, with your contentions that CO2 is unclean, unfresh "crap." 

And yes, humans *can* affect the environment.  We *can* pollute.  We can add CO2 to the atmosphere via the combustion of fossil fuels.  But the two of those activities are not the same thing.  Emitting CO2 is not the same thing as polluting.  If it were, plants and trees have easily earned the title of the world's biggest polluters.   As have termites.   

"It doesn't matter how high a carbon tax is if we eliminate CO2 production by using CLEAN energy."

Would you be willing to start paying $30 for a gallon of gas?   How about paying $2,500 per month to heat your home?   Want to pay $150,000 for a car?    Or 5 times as much for petroleum-based products like plastics?   If it "doesn't matter how high," why not?  Right?

And will paying these prices for energy in the US actually make a difference considering China's CO2 emissions are growing almost exponentially in the other direction?   Even if the US were to completely stop fossil fuel emissions right now, the global CO2 emissions would *still* be growing rapidly because our stoppage will be easily outpaced by China's massive surge.



So you want to rid the world of all oil-based products so you can drive your hydrogen-powered car.  If we did that, you wouldn't have a hydrogen-powered car.  You wouldn't have a steel body.  You wouldn't have a plastic body.   You wouldn't have seats.  You wouldn't have tires.   You wouldn't have an engine.   You wouldn't have a vehicle.   

There is no such thing as "clean alternatives" that do not also rely, at least somewhat, on fossil fuel based energy.   Wind turbines, solar panels...rely heavily on fossil fuels to operate.   

A partial list of products made from Petroleum (144 of 6000 items) 

One 42-gallon barrel of oil creates 19.4 gallons of gasoline. The rest (over half) is used to make things like:


Diesel fuel

Motor Oil

Bearing Grease


Floor Wax

Ballpoint Pens

Football Cleats





Bicycle Tires

Sports Car Bodies

Nail Polish

Fishing lures



Golf Bags



Dishwasher parts

Tool Boxes

Shoe Polish

Motorcycle Helmet


Petroleum Jelly

Transparent Tape

CD Player

Faucet Washers




Food Preservatives



Vitamin Capsules










Panty Hose



Life Jackets

Rubbing Alcohol



TV Cabinets

Shag Rugs

Electrician's Tape

Tool Racks

Car Battery Cases





Insect Repellent

Oil Filters




Hair Coloring


Toilet Seats

Fishing Rods


Denture Adhesive


Ice Cube Trays

Synthetic Rubber


Plastic Wood

Electric Blankets


Tennis Rackets

Rubber Cement

Fishing Boots


Nylon Rope


Trash Bags

House Paint

Water Pipes

Hand Lotion

Roller Skates

Surf Boards



Paint Rollers

Shower Curtains

Guitar Strings



Safety Glasses


Football Helmets





Ice Chests



CD's & DVD's

Paint Brushes




Sun Glasses


Heart Valves









Artificial Turf

Artificial limbs



Model Cars

Folding Doors

Hair Curlers

Cold cream

Movie film

Soft Contact lenses

Drinking Cups

Fan Belts

Car Enamel

Shaving Cream



Golf Balls




"Would you be willing to start paying $30 for a gallon of gas?"

I wouldn't care how high gas prices are if we use clean alternatives to power our vehicles! For instance, if we all powered our vehicles with hydrogen, then gas prices could be $1,000,000 a gallon and it wouldn't affect me. If we don't use gas, then how are gas prices relevant?

We also add much more than CO2 to the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels.


Just out of cutlriosity, how much do you get paid to go on and on and on about CO2??? You can't seem to get CO2 off your brain. And I think everyone realizes China is a huge problem when it comes to polluting but since when does that make it OK to contribute even more to the problem??


1. It's naive to think that humans CAN'T affect our environment.

2. It doesn't matter how high a carbon tax is if we eliminate CO2 production by using CLEAN energy.

I would rather breathe fresh, clean air, than the crap that is produced by burning fossil fuels!


Well, what you want will get rid of the wage gap between the rich and the poor, I'll give you that. That is because there can't be any wage gap if we are all dead. What you want "helps poor people rise out of poverty", and into the fire! Green energies can help poor people, and economies. When gas prices go up, the price of everything else gets driven up to cover shipping. Because of that, people (including poor people), don't just pay more out of pocket directly at the pumps, but, they also have to pay more, indirectly, for just about everything they buy. At times like these, when oil companies are making record profits, economies get taken to their knees.


@rlcina71 @twinkletoes2035 Who said you had to get rid of oil based products completely to drive a hydrogen powered car? It just means we are not burning fossil fuels and releasing all that "brown crap" into the atmosphere. Oh I LIKE breathing all that "brown crap" Explains a lot. Evidently the people in China like it so much they have to wear masks just to walk outside. Thanks to our law makers they have curtailed the problem here to the point that is a little bit more tolerable. But not my much. 


What is your plan when we run out of oil on this planet?


@pasquale.argenio You have no evidence to support your ad hominem accusations about "paid trolls."  This suggests that your credibility on other topics may be no greater. 


The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control