Polar Vortex ≠ Climate Change

The dramatic “polar vortex” hitting much of the U.S. this week has generated a lot of questions about climate change. This is a good thing. We need more people to be actively engaged and intellectually curious about this very important topic. Here are some of the questions arising during the cold spell, with my answers.

Does the polar vortex disprove the theory of climate change?

No. However, it does highlight the important distinction between weather and climate. Weather patterns are volatile, local and to some large degree unpredictable. The planet is large and complex, and an enormous number of factors, not all of which can even be anticipated, impact weather fluctuations. Climate, on the other hand, refers to long-term, gradual and much more predictable changes.

By testing their climate models against past temperature and rainfall data, scientists have concluded with confidence that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are warming the planet and disrupting the climate.  This is why businesses in sectors such as agriculture, recreation and transportation now use phrases like “the new normal” or “”climate weirding” to plan for the impacts of climate change.

If we’re going to have cold spells like this, do we really need to be so concerned about climate change?

Yes. The theory of climate change concludes that a warming planet will result in more drought, intense rains, floods, sea level rise, glacier melt, and unnatural forest fires and insect outbreaks that kill trees and damage communities. These trends are already clear and have a dramatic impact on both people and wildlife.

What kind of impact?

For people, droughts lead to spikes in food prices and the risk of global food crises. Rising sea levels mean that coastlines are in danger of bigger storms, floods and severe damage to homes and communities. The impacts of climate change will be felt by everyone.

As for wildlife, you can think of the future as one where there will be many “missed connections.” Already, we have observed mammals and fish migrating north to cooler, better climates than they traditionally have relied upon. This greatly complicates ecosystems. Imagine you are a migrating bird, and your migratory schedule has changed because the places you used to stop and rest are no longer suitable or available. It might mean that the food and shelter you depend on won’t be where you need it when you need it. The implications for wildlife and biodiversity are very real.

What about these one-off dramatic events such as polar vortexes, Hurricane Sandy, or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines? Can these be definitively linked to climate change?

No. Environmentalists need to be very disciplined about not exaggerating the extent of our knowledge. Some things we know very well (see question two above) and others less well. Climate scientists expect that extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan will increase in frequency as the globe warms, but no particular event that has occurred to date can be blamed on climate change rather than the expected variability in the weather.

There are data and models that suggest greenhouse gas emissions will alter major wind patterns and ocean circulation patterns –perhaps even phenomena such as the polar vortex.  But in what directions and by how much these massive flows of air and water will be altered is an active area of research.

However, there are things we can say with confidence.  Take Hurricane Sandy, for example. While we can’t directly link the storm to climate change, we can certainly point to the fact that sea level rise—unmistakably due to receding glaciers and warming oceans—hugely exacerbated the devastating outcomes of Sandy.

To make matters worse, the newest IPCC report points out that sea level rise is happening much faster than anyone expected.  With human dwellings and businesses increasingly clustered near our shores, sea level rise has the potential to profoundly impact our well-being.

Do we know what to do to address climate change?

Yes. However, knowing what to do and building the political alliances needed to make it happen are two very different things.

Here’s what we should do, for example: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by enhancing efficiency. According to recent estimates, the U.S. could reduce energy use by 25 percent and save money simply by wasting less energy. Putting a price on carbon would also incentivize people to use energy more prudently and accelerate a transition to renewable energy sources.

Reducing global deforestation—which leads to just shy of 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—would not only make a significant dent in the climate change problem but also result in important co-benefits for people and wildlife. Government research and development in carbon capture and sequestration and smart nuclear power is also critical.

What about the politics?

Well, one can be discouraged when looking at Capitol Hill, where there has been a good deal of unproductive, partisan fighting over this issue. But on the other hand, if we observe what’s happening in cities and states across the country, or in various international jurisdictions (even in China, where there are strong pilot programs underway to implement cap and trade pricing for carbon) it’s evident that political will is rising.

At The Nature Conservancy, we observe the same thing in our dialogue with business leaders, who increasingly understand that climate change is a reality and must be part of business planning.  For example, at the 2014 World Economic Forum taking place in Davos in a few weeks, climate change is a major part of the program for the first time.

[Image: Receding polar ice cap. Image Source: © 2002 Corbis]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Great job, Mark.

  2. Excellent. Excellent.

  3. Climate change is really something serious but I think it is very difficult for some people to understand it, as they do not search for proper information about it. Thanks for this article. It is very informative and clarifies a lot of questions about the topic.

  4. Great article, Mark. Many people don’t understand the difference. Once it’s explained, people can wrap their minds around it & recognize the difference.

  5. In my opinion it was unwise for the CEO of TNC to send a letter to the president after the 2008 election assuring him that Cap and Trade would be a top priority for TNC. Recently again he stood behind the president on his Climate initiative even before it was known or the new EPA director was appointed.
    As an honorary trustee of TNC OH and a 40 year donor, human well being comes first. The radical views on coal will not reduce world wide co2. It will hurt jobs and the economy. The same applies to the endless study of the pipe line.

  6. This has been a long slog. I first became aware of this while a senior fellow at World Resources Institute with an office next to economist Bob Repetto who was researching global warming, and proposing a carbon tax. That was in 1989. 25 years later we as a nation are still unwilling to acknowledge the threat. That says something about our species. It also says that we have a real political problem with the Party I used to belong to. Someone (TNC?) has to get through to its leaders, or we must change them at the ballot box.
    Bruce Smart

  7. I have always wondered if ice-breakers have, in fact, been partly responsible for climate change and particularly for what’s going on in the polar regions. Having started ripping their way through the ice in the late 1800’s, icebreakers have dramatically increased in size and rate of occurrence at our polar regions. Note the following (particularly the capability to crack ice fields 3 meters thick…all year round) as it may prove the idea valid:

    In August 2012 Atomflot – a sister company of Rosatom signed a 37 billion ruble ($1.2 billion) contract to begin construction of a “universal” vessel. According to the general director of Atomflot Vyacheslav Ruksha, the Icebreaker LK-60 Project 22220 vessel is likely to be called the “Arctic”.

    Powered by two “RITM-200” pressurized water reactors the “Arctic” is being built to generate 175MWe. Its efficiency and power allows the new model to crack ice fields 3 meters thick.

    The Arctic will be granted the highest ice class – 9, meaning the ship will be able to break ice in the Arctic area all year round.

  8. All of this confuses me even more. I believe we are stewards of this earth. Recently though, I read that the Polar Vortex which is causing so many weather events is NOT caused by climate change but by rotation of the earth and is an expected event in time. What’s an ordinary person to do?

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