My shoulders and back hurt. Shoveling snow is hard work, and I’ve been doing a lot of it. The recent East Coast “Snowpocalypse” brought nearly two feet of snow to the Washington, D.C., region and, just three days later, we got nearly a foot more (my favorite nickname for this one: Snoverkill).
Yes, this is an unusually snowy winter in the mid-Atlantic United States. No, this doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t real (at least I don’t think so). But, thanks to the power of social networking sites, I know that plenty of climate change skeptics are using these instances of unusual weather to claim that the climate can’t possibly be warming.
First things first. What causes a particularly snowy winter? According to Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist for The Washington Post‘s Capital Weather Gang blog, “the snowy winter is related to the interplay between the moderate El Nino feeding in tropical moisture and a blocking pattern in the atmosphere over Greenland, which has been bottling up cold air over eastern North America. We don’t get that combination very often.”
But I think the real mistake people make comes from confusing fluctuations in day-to-day weather with long-term climate trends. If record snowfalls and lower-than-average temperatures in Washington, D.C. meant that the planet isn’t warming, how would we explain the news that Vancouver, British Colombia, had to truck in snow for the 2010 Winter Olympics? In fact, Vancouver just experienced the warmest January on record.
Many climate experts would say that neither of these events (the cold, snowy weather in Washington or the warm weather in Vancouver) signals anything about the long-term changes in global temperature. They are simply isolated weather fluctuations, which have always happened all over the world.
As the Conservancy’s climate change director Jonathan Hoekstra wrote to The New York Times last week, the Conservancy and other science-based organizations have been witnessing the impacts of climate change around the world.
“Coastal erosion is accelerating along the Eastern and Gulf coasts as sea level rises,” Hoekstra wrote. “Receding sea ice and melting permafrost in the Arctic is threatening both wildlife and the communities that live there. Warmer winters and drier summers are contributing to bark beetle infestations and increased fire threats across the American West.”
What’s also very disturbing is the recent news from the Arctic. A three-year study conducted from a research vessel spending winters above the Arctic Circle, which involved more than 370 scientists, has just ended. The news: David Barber, lead researcher from the University of Manitoba, says climate change in the region “is happening much faster than our most pessimistic models expected.”
In fact, Barber says that ice-free summers in the Arctic could begin as early as 2013.
So, let’s make a deal. If all those clever people who have been commenting online about how Al Gore should come shovel their driveway drop it, I promise not to say a peep when it’s 102 degrees in July. But I wouldn’t do that anyway… because I know that daily fluctuations don’t necessarily reflect long-term climate trends.
(Image credit: Advantage_Lendl/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)