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

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

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.

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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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 01/28/2014 - 08:14 am.

    Now I’ll read it one more time, yes…

    A rare perspective…the heart of a poet in a man of science; a special narrative indeed.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/28/2014 - 09:05 am.

    De-stabilized systems exhibit chaotic behavior until a new stability is reached.

    Unfortunately, life only develops and prospers in stable systems.

    The developing chaos and intensifying feedback loops should be sufficient warning in itself.

    When the first ice-free summer Arctic ocean occurs a few years from now, will that be sufficient evidence? I doubt it–there is too much money and PR against it.

    When the last hold-out can no longer deny, it will be decades too late.

    The human-produced carbon flywheel is spinning from the output decades ago and has yet to accelerate into current output. And it can only speed up as the huge carbon sinks of the tundra release their hold.

    And we will continue to be surprised by how inhospitable an unstable climate can become.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/28/2014 - 09:17 am.

    When It Comes to Judging the Effects of the Alterations

    we humans are making in the atmosphere surrounding our planet, we will only know what it was the we did after it’s already happened.

    There are simply far too many causes whose effects remain decidedly unclear, and other causes we haven’t even identified yet, unidentified causes which are likely to be unexpected and unprecedented effects of the causes we HAVE identified.

    But the overarching reality is, we know how to survive on this planet as it has existed for the past couple of millennia (with a few climate-related hiccups along the way). We will likely have a much harder time surviving on the changed planet we are creating.

    We have no clue when we will reach a climatological tipping point at which point massive and currently unpredictable climate change will mean that we will have to try to discover how to survive on a planet that is very different than the one on which we currently live,…

    but it is likely that such a tipping point is in our future, it’s likelihood being increased with each ton of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gasses we’re blithely adding to our atmosphere.

    I can’t help but wonder if we’re headed for a climate in which the earth’s so-called temperate zones, (such as the central US) suffer BOTH much hotter, drier summers and much colder winters,…

    and/or we’re headed toward more of what we’re already experiencing, static jet stream patterns which divide the temperate zones into static areas which are much colder and others much warmer than has been the case in the recent past, with those on the boundaries suffering extreme levels of precipitation while other areas suffer long-lasting drought.

    In the end, we really don’t know if the climate will shift in the direction of “Water World” or “The Day After Tomorrow” or some combination of both,…

    the greatest danger to habitability being that huge, very slowly shifting (as in months or years) areas of heat and drought, with other areas of cold and wet becoming the rule so that NO area consistently enjoys what we have come to regard as a normal growing season, which would mean that crops could not be dependably grown anywhere.

    Is it really worth the risk of altering the climate of this planet in ways that make it far more difficult, if not impossible, for millions of our fellow humans, and even we ourselves, to find adequate food and shelter, just so that we can continue, right up until the cataclysm arrives, to massively enrich the already fabulously wealthy executives, owners and investors of the industries who profit from our continuing to do what we’re doing now?

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/28/2014 - 05:49 pm.


    “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.” Yes it does.

    What has also faded away is global warming, for the past 15 years.
    What has not faded away is the massive ice cover in Antarctica, which is at the highest level since scientific scans began in the late 70s.

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