It May Be Freezing Today, but Global Warming's Still a Fact

Earth

Across the World this winter is biting hard--harder than it has been for years. And with a new cold snap threatening much of the U.S, it looks like it's going to get chillier. But don't you go thinking Global Warming is rubbish.

That's the message from scientists who are keen to dispel some of the public misunderstanding on the matter. This is a misunderstanding which stems from what the average Joe would call a common sense argument: "If it's such a cold Winter, how come you guys are scared the Earth's warming up?" The problem, of course, is that there's no such thing as common sense, and the poor logic of this argument is in collision with some very hard-won scientific facts.

And it's also about a misunderstanding on the difference between climate and weather. The fact that man is influencing the climate to warm it up is now pretty much beyond question, but the term "climate" applies to the entire atmosphere and its complex interplay of chemistry, physics, fluid dynamics, solar flux variations, and a trillion other features on a global scale. On the other hand the term "weather", which is often mistakenly interchanged with "climate," refers to exactly how the local atmospheric conditions are behaving from a human observer's point of view. Though climate influences weather, the link is obscenely complex and unpredictable.

To boil that down to plain English, look at it like this: The entire atmosphere is being messed around with by human activity, and seems to be warming up a infinitesimal amount each year. But that isn't going to stop events like the huge chunk of cold Arctic air currently sliding down over the U.S. and Europe and making it snow. In fact, global warming may even, in the short term, make that sort of event more likely, not less.

As senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Gerald Meehl, notes "It's part of natural variability." And he's being careful with his words: The climate and weather are actually mathematically chaotic, and one of the early pioneers in Chaos theory, Edward Lorenz, built up his understanding of the math by studying the way air masses move through the atmosphere. Though Chaos theory is extremely difficult to explain, one way to think about it is to look at the beautiful clouds on Jupiter.

Jupiter

These are pretty familiar, and we all know those rough bands of reddish color that are an apparently predictable trademark of the planet, along with the persistent hurricane of the Great Red Spot. This behavior of Jupiter is like our climate's predictable patterns: Seasonal changes, the Gulf Stream, and so on. But if you zoom in to look at the detail of any of Jupiter's bands of cloud, it's impossibly changeable and complex and definitely unpredictable. Think of Earth's local weather as equivalent to those unpredictable small details, and you'll get why some days it rains in summer and the sun blazes bright in winter.

And there's a bigger upshot of Chaos for the issue of global warming, which is simpler to explain and tied in to the debate about the current weather conditions: Nature is an unpredictable beast. We know we're warming the climate up as a whole, which is going to have long term impact on the patterns of our climate. But that doesn't mean Mother Nature isn't going to dump a mountain of snow on you from time to time.

[Via Yahoo] Image via NASA (GOES East Infrared)

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14 Comments

  • overstock

    Global warming is increasing every day due to the human activities like deforestation etc but no doubt in winters it is chilling cold. Its true that there is a big difference between climate and weather and these human activities are influnecing the atmospheric climate where as the winters are extremely cold,which is the weather. so both chilling cold and global warming exist simultanoeusly

  • Gene Delgado

    Bob, you're the one offering your opinion and I take it you're not a climate scientist. I'm not going to do the legwork for you; The studies are published and all you have to do is a tiny bit of googling to find a variety of studies done by different countries and different scientific organizations (as opposed to political ones and energy companies) where after years of research and study in different places and in different ways the consensus of legitimate scientists around the world is that global warming is real. You can't rely on one newspaper or one news station or one anything.

  • John Herbold

    How can any FC editor approve a headline like this? Not only is it not accurate, the article doesn't provide any substantiation. It's ironic that Kit combines these two thoughts in the same sentence: "The fact that man is influencing the climate to warm it up is now pretty much beyond question, but the term "climate" applies to the entire atmosphere and its complex interplay of chemistry, physics, fluid dynamics, solar flux variations, and a trillion other features on a global scale."

    A trillion other features on a global scale... Precisely why you cannot claim that "Global Warming's Still a Fact."

    Disappointing.

  • Gene Delgado

    The article above may be completely correct but it's a very confusing explanation for non-scientists. How about this:

    Yes, it very cold this winter in North America and Europe but, right now, it's summer in the southern hemisphere where it is very hot. The average of ALL temperatures around the globe is higher than it's been -and the average continues to get warmer.

    Higher AVERAGE world temperatures causes more extreme weather: more & bigger hurricanes, more & more powerful tornadoes, more rain in some places, dryer in some places, more snow in some places, hotter summers, and colder winters.

    It's not just about what's happening where you are, it's the average of what's happening everywhere.

  • Gene Delgado

    The article above may be completely correct but it's a very confusing explanation for non-scientists. How about this:

    Yes, it very cold this winter in North America and Europe but, right now, it's summer in the southern hemisphere where it is very hot. The average of ALL temperatures around the globe is higher than it's been -and the average continues to get warmer.

    Higher AVERAGE world temperatures causes more extreme weather: more & bigger hurricanes, more & more powerful tornadoes, more rain in some places, dryer in some places, more snow in some places, hotter summers, and colder winters.

    It's not just about what's happening where you are, it's the average of what's happening everywhere.

  • Bob Diamond

    Until you can show show me the truly peer-reviewed research that supports your position, it's only words. Opinions are not facts!

  • Omar Yacoubi

    The way I think about it is that with the earth's average temperature increasing, more heat energy has to get exchanged through the earth's weather system. So bigger stuff is going to happen, whatever the temperature.

  • Gene Delgado

    The article above may be completely correct but it's a very confusing explanation for non-scientists. How about this:

    Yes, it very cold this winter in North America and Europe but, right now, it's summer in the southern hemisphere where it is very hot. The average of ALL temperatures around the globe is higher than it's been -and the average continues to get warmer.

    Higher AVERAGE world temperatures causes more extreme weather: more & bigger hurricanes, more & more powerful tornadoes, more rain in some places, dryer in some places, more snow in some places, hotter summers, and colder winters.

    It's not just about what's happening where you are, it's the average of what's happening everywhere.

  • David Sutton

    So, let me get this straight. Global warming is supported by "hard won scientific facts". Who were the scientists fighting? Science is science and should be easily supported and repeatedly proven.

    Global warming causes more of these record cold snaps?

    Climate and weather cannot be predicted because they are mathmematically chaotic? Except, they can be predicted by the Chaos theory which cannot be explained?

    However, this can all be cleared up by using Jupiter as an example located millions of miles away that we know nearly nothing about?

    How can anyone argue with this explanation???

  • David Sutton

    So, let me get this straight. Global warming is supported by "hard won scientific facts". Who were the scientists fighting? Science is science and should be easily supported and repeatedly proven.

    Global warming causes more of these record cold snaps?

    Climate and weather cannot be predicted because they are mathmematically chaotic? Except, they can be predicted by the Chaos theory which cannot be explained?

    However, this can all be cleared up by using Jupiter as an example located millions of miles away that we know nearly nothing about?

    How can anyone argue with this explanation???

  • Thomas Sr.

    Okay, but next summer, when a heatwave strikes Nova Scotia, Argentina or Palau, are you going to remind us, by the same logic, that "hot weather" does not prove that anrhopogenic global warming is "real"? Somehow I doubt it. I am not denying that "average golbal temperature" (whatever that means - seriously - how is that defined?) may be rising, and of course, human activity must play some role. Everything affects everything, after all. But when weather and climate are both acknowledged to be chaotic systems, I reject the notion that we know, or can ever know, what the climate or the weather will look like in one year, let alone 100, and whether the change will be good or bad, overall. Inevitably, some will benefit, and some will lose. I predict that the planet will still be here and I'll bet any amount of money that the human race will adapt and survive. But the simple invitation to a debate any aspect of AGW orthodoxy brings out howls of outrage and holier than thou condescencion from such luminaries as Mr. Gore and his acolytes of anthro-warming. The mere fact that Fast Company and others feel the need to state the obvious (cold spell does not disprove AGW - no duh!) makes me question whether the accepted revealed wisdom is really so settled after all.

    I would really like to see someone other than Michael Mann, Al Gore or Rachel Maddow state the case, in simple and non-judgmental terms, just why we should absolutely accept their alarmist predicitons of catastrophe when the question is so complex? And without using that most unscientific of words "consensus" as the foundation of their argument. I've heard Al Gore (I think) imply that global warming skeptics are in the same camp (if not the same people) as those who claim the moon landings were faked, but it's worth noting that the response to those claims has been a point by point, scientific, rational explanation of exactly where the conspiracy crowd went wrong. In contrast, AGW skeptics are greeted with derision and "Trust me, I'm from the government" logic. Let's get real. Let's estimate the probabilities of all the outcomes, and the the costs, efficacy and reversibility of the proposed solutions (mirrors in space! Give me a break?) and then discuss rational courses of action - or inaction. Anything less is nothing more than politics and ideology.

    By the way - it makes me laugh when people compare the certainty of golbal warming theory to the "theory" of gravity. Are they not aware that gravity is perhaps the least understood of all the known fundamental forces? And have they not yet heard that our theory of gravity cannot yet account for the recent observations that the universe seeme to be expanding at an increasing rate, contrary to classical or even relativistic predictions of what should happen? Science is never settled, and even the most revered theories can be disproven with a single contrary fact. That is science - like it or not.

  • Charles Dutertre

    well, the changes we can see in local weather such as for instance the massive snowfall we are currently suffering (I m from France and its the same here (by the way sorry for the poor english)), so the changes in local weather could even be directly depending on the earth's warming up, according to a very serious theory involving the main Gulf stream which is perturbated inderictly by these changes and could not make our winters smoother as before
    This is the case of Northwest europe, it might not be same every where else