Current Events · For Science!

How Climate Change Causes Cold Winters

If you logged off the internet for the holidays, you might have missed the President of the United States spectacularly misunderstanding basic science:

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One of the best responses came from clothing designer and former Jersey Shore cast member Vinny Guadagnino.

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Vinny is 100% correct that “atmospheric conditions, ocean patterns, jet streams and shit like that” mean that although the planet is getting hotter overall, specific regions may actually experience extreme cold or snow.

As a postgraduate at the University of Glasgow, I studied the Arctic Oscillation and related weather patterns, and their interaction with rising average global temperatures, as part of my thesis. I presented this interdisciplinary study at the European Congress of Conservation Biology in 2012.  So here is why climate change– an increase in the average global temperature– can cause extreme cold, especially in northern North America. Feel free to link as a response to any climate denialists demanding you explain the phenomenon of climate change causing extreme cold.

On the globe, the poles are ‘up’ and the Equator is ‘down’ as far as air and water circulation are concerned. Cold air and water from the Arctic sinks towards the Equator, whilst warm air and water from the Equator rises towards the poles. In the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream pushes warm water up into higher latitudes, while the Arctic Oscillation pushes cold water into lower latitudes. This is called thermohaline circulation, and it moves heat from the Equator to more northern areas.

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The reason this works is that the difference in temperature between the Arctic and the Equator. The large temperature (energy) difference is what fuels actual movement of water and air.

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As the average global temperature rises, however, the gradient becomes less steep and more uniform.

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This means that the Gulf Stream weakens, and can no longer push up against the cold Arctic air and water flowing south. The result? Arctic air moves further south, chilling regions such as New England that would normally be warmed by the Gulf Stream all winter.

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And that is how climate change, in spite of causing an overall warming trend, results in some areas of the world experiencing unusually cold winters.

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