Historic winter storm raises questions about climate change and cold

Experts say climate change affects the severity and length of winter storms.

February 19, 2021, 5:00 AM

Severe winter weather around the country has raised questions about how climate change, more frequently associated with global warming, is influencing the frequency and intensity of extreme cold.

At the same time, record lows from Nebraska to New Orleans, and the most snow in at least three decades for much of the southern Plains, has climate change skeptics asking: "Where’s the global warming now?”

The answer is, while the connection between climate change and cold weather patterns isn’t as clearly established as its relationship to warming, experts say it does affect how severe winter storms are and how long they last.

And cold weather, even when extreme, does not negate that Earth is warming.

One weather event like the historic storm hitting much of the country this week doesn’t prove or disprove long-term trends in the climate, experts say. And while climate change hasn’t been definitively linked to making winter storms colder, they say it can make a major difference.

"Climate change is making extreme cold and severe snowstorms and things like that actually less frequent, but when they do happen they're still huge high-impact events," said Carl Schreck, a tropical weather expert at North Carolina State University.

"I mean the world still goes around the sun, it's still tilted on its axis, we're going to have seasons, the thing is we're having those extreme events less often than we used to. So they're more noteworthy now than, maybe they were 50 years ago," he said.

Swings in temperature associated with specific weather events are also getting more extreme in both warm and cold seasons.

"The deviations, day to day month to month around what we call the statistical averages, or the normals get bigger," said Mark Seeley, a climatologist at the University of Minneapolis - St. Paul.

PHOTO: People sled down a hill after a snow storm on Feb. 17, 2021, in Fort Worth, Texas.
People sled down a hill after a snow storm on Feb. 17, 2021, in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Climate change is also contributing to conditions that lock extreme weather events in one place longer, instead of moving across an area quickly.

Some research suggests those patterns are linked to increased warming in the Arctic and its impact on the jet stream, the strong tunnels of wind in the atmosphere that propel weather systems around the globe.

Schreck said the jet stream depends on the contrast between temperatures at the North Pole and lower latitudes like the Equator. So when the Arctic warms that difference is smaller and weakens the jet stream, making weather more sticky.

"So whatever weather pattern you get in tends to stick around a little bit longer, and that can lead to more extreme events," he said.

There has also been more anecdotal evidence about the changes to winter weather around the world, specifically from athletes like Jessie Diggins, a cross-country skier who has competed for the U.S. in the Olympics.

Diggins is a board member for the group Protect Our Winters, which advocates for climate change action to protect the environment and venues for winter sports. She said she’s competed in cities around the world that typically have heavy snowfall in the winter but in recent years haven’t seen the same amount of snow they expect.

"There have been years where we were racing and training on this ribbon of manmade snow with green grass and mud on the side of the trail in January," she told ABC News Live.

Diggins said she knows the conditions in one place at one time doesn’t reflect climate change but that this has been a pattern she started to notice more in recent years.

"I think it's more of the trend that we're seeing over time that you know it's not just one venue in one week it's multiple venues multiple different countries over multiple years it's getting more and more common to have this trend of needing to race on manmade snow," she told ABC News Live.

PHOTO: A man walks to his friend's home in a neighborhood without electricity as snow covers the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas, Feb. 15, 2021.
A man walks to his friend's home in a neighborhood without electricity as snow covers the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas, Feb. 15, 2021.
Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/USA Today Network via Reuters

Experts say that even if warmer winters don’t sound as dangerous as extreme heat, any change to the climate is disruptive and it should get the same amount of attention to understand how the country needs to adapt and that cities, states, and utilities should prepare to keep the power on even in the most extreme and unlikely conditions.

And energy experts like Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering and energy systems at Princeton University, say the power outages in Texas this week reinforce the need for states and cities to plan for more extreme weather events in the future, even if they seem unlikely. He compared it to getting health insurance even if you don’t think you’ll get sick.

"Texas is showing is that we have to think carefully about the unexpected about the sort of rare events that maybe aren't on the front of our minds, but when they do occur, have the potential to have very severe outcomes and very dangerous outcomes," Jenkins said.

"What Texas is showing is that we have to really rethink and reevaluate the you know, the level of insurance, that we want to have and climate change makes that all much more difficult," he said.

Seeley said the country has to keep having the conversation about climate change because the negative consequences are piling up.

"It literally demands adaptation and mitigation, if we're going to preserve our natural resources and preserve our societal infrastructure and its ability to keep us with the quality of life we have now. Because unless we keep up with this pace we're going to be lost," he said.

"That's why it needs so much attention," he said.

ABC News' Ginger Zee and Jon Schlosberg contributed to this report.

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