Polar Science

It’s been below zero for days. What ever happened to global warming?”

I heard statements like these surprisingly often during this winter’s polar vortex, which subjected millions in North America to sub-zero temperatures normally felt in northeastern Canada and the polar regions. Though often meant in jest, sentiments like these become frighteningly real when they are expressed by public figures with large followings. Consider the words of Rush Limbaugh, who, in the midst of the polar vortex suggested that the cold whether was evidence global warming wasn’t happening and that “[the scientists] have always sought to convince you that the world is warming is not the climate where you live, but rather where you aren’t, where you can’t see what is really happening.” Limbaugh goes on to characterize climate change “an abject, a total fraud” designed to mislead and spread fear. More alarming, perhaps, is his continued use of a “they” versus “you” complex when he refers to the scientists and the general public throughout his program. Such an argumentative device alienates the science from everyday people and introduces a conflict where none was present.

But what do “they” really have to say regarding the science of the polar vortex? Looking at the real science, rather than Limbaugh’s anti-intellectual attack, we might actually be able to use the polar vortex as a lesson in our changing climate. Many scientists actually believe that the polar vortex’s trip south may have been caused by warming in the Artic that has melted an unprecedented amount of ice. Once this ice melts, the resulting water, which holds onto heat more easily because of its relatively higher specific heat, can drastically affect the movement of air masses in the troposphere and stratosphere. This, in turn, can weaken the boundaries of the polar vortex and push the weather formation south. But, does this mean that these unusually frigid temperatures are surefire evidence of global warming?

No, and no single weather event — no matter how hot, cold, or freakish — can really be given that scientific power. The dip in the polar vortex affected just two percent of Earth’s surface, and previous dips occurred long before humans ever began to burn fossil fuels. During its descent, drought and forest fires still ravaged the forests of California, Australia saw the beginnings of a dangerous heat wave, and other places around the world undoubtedly experienced temperatures around their seasonal averages.

Events like the polar vortex’s travel southward teach us an important lesson about the scientific methods we use to describe our planet’s rising temperatures. Global warming is just that: a global trend towards higher temperatures caused by an increased presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and waters. Its other name, climate change, is also just that: a measured trend towards higher temperatures in the globe’s climate, which is always characterized by decades of weather patterns and never single events.

TempChanges
Northern Hemisphere temperature difference from 20th century average 1880-2013. (NOAA)

And when we look at global trends, the evidence is overwhelming that the planet is warming and the climate changing. While the polar vortex may not be evidence of this on its own, it is certainly not evidence that global warming has stopped simply because it is unusually cold in North America.

Limbaugh’s radio diatribe, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe’s argument against man-made climate change, and Donald Trump’s Fox News appearance are just real world examples of our natural myopic sense of judgment regarding climate change. Viewpoints like these are dangerously anti-science and anti-evidence, and, as a result, do nothing to address our warming planet. If we are to have any success in reducing our contributions to climate change, we must trust the facts, and most importantly, the science.

Image Credit: Rob Barros via Wikimedia Commons

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