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The cold in context: Clues to plain truths amid the commotion

All Minnesotans over the age of 10 have lived through colder temperatures. What’s striking is the fact that such extremes have become less common and less intense.

The cold is remarkable relative to recent memory, but not unprecedented in intensity or duration.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

As the Upper Midwest endures another blast of Arctic air in 2014, we Minnesotans are reminded that our state is no stranger to the relentless variability of weather and climate, even amid ongoing climate change.

Brian Smoliak

While subzero air swirls outside, we huddle in our homes and listen as the media and scientists try to make sense of the conditions. On the one hand, we hear meteorologists say the culprit is a wobble of the polar vortex, a ring of fast-moving air that circulates around the North Pole high in the atmosphere during the cold half of the year. On the other hand, we hear climatologists wonder whether global warming might increasingly disturb those winter winds, paradoxically producing more frequent bouts of extreme cold.

Considering this complex mix of natural and human factors, operating on the time scale of days to decades, it is no surprise that strong conclusions have been hard to discern. However, there are some plain truths amid the commotion. Here are some clues to help you find them.

Clear pictures or unfinished puzzles?

Scientific stories tend to fall into one of two categories: (1) clear pictures represented by thoroughly investigated facts, theories, and expectations developed over years and years of painstaking work, and (2) unfinished puzzles epitomized by exciting new hypotheses and unexplainable phenomena that researchers continue to scrutinize and debate. When we encounter unfamiliar claims, it is reasonable to ask whether the science is well-established fact or uncertain possibility.

Brian Smoliak/Midwestern Regional Climate Center

This practice of distilling raw information into practical knowledge inevitably takes some amount of individual effort, as well as help from thoughtful scientists, journalists and other informed observers. If we put the recent extreme cold through this filtering process, we’re left with simple facts to ground ourselves and plausible ideas to wonder about.

Simple facts appeal to our life experience. For example, the cold is remarkable relative to recent memory, but not unprecedented in intensity or duration. All Minnesotans over the age of 10 have lived through colder temperatures. In that sense, it’s not the cold itself that is striking, but the fact that such extremes have become less common and less intense. As greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere, scientists expect seasonal temperatures to rise. We expect seasonal extreme temperatures to increase as well, and observed data support it.

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Ideas on the frontier

Plausible ideas feed our imagination. They mark the scientific frontier and encourage discovery. Is it theoretically possible for global warming to influence the polar vortex with implications for our local weather? Yes. Has it been observed and proven beyond a reasonable doubt? Probably not. Some scientists have produced evidence that supports the theory, but the data are limited and don’t yet constitute a clear signal. Why? The atmosphere is chaotic and noisy by nature, making it hard to identify consistent trends, particularly over short intervals or at the local level.

Minnesotans are accustomed to nature’s atmospheric whims. We intuitively know that weather is changeable from day-to-day and month-to-month, just as our own inner emotions fluctuate over time. Although we adapt our lives to the constancy of the four seasons, even they are subject to change from year-to-year, unmistakable in the swing from record warmth in spring 2012 to cold and snow in spring 2013. However, if we look beyond our state borders to the globe as whole, or take a longer view over multiple decades, the noise fades away.

It’s all about perspective

In other words, comprehending climate change is all about perspective. That means getting outside ourselves, looking past our immediate time and place. From there we can call on memory, reason and intuition to help us try to see the big picture, which brings us back to the place we began. When it comes to extraordinary, downright dangerous weather and all the hype that follows, be safe, and remember to listen for the signal in the noise.

Brian Smoliak is a native Minnesotan and an atmospheric scientist by training. He completed a PhD in atmospheric science at the University of Washington in 2013 and currently works as a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate at the University of Minnesota. Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianSmoliak.


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