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Doug Hoffman: Some Chilling Thoughts

Doug Hoffman, The Resilient Earth

Something happened this year that has become rare in recent times, much of the United States has had a white Christmas. As of December 28th, 64.4% of the US was covered by snow with an average depth of 6.2 inches (15.7 cm). This compares with last month’s coverage of only 19.8%. My own town of Conway, Arkansas, received 10 inches on Christmas day and a winter storm advisory is in effect as another storm makes its way eastward. For Arkansas, this has been the snowiest Christmas ever, breaking the old record set in 1926, and the 7th snowiest day overall since 1875. But North America is not alone in feeling winter’s bite—record cold continues in Siberia, while a vicious cold snap across Russia and Eastern Europe has claimed nearly 200 lives. What does all this say about global warming?

According to NOAA’s National Snow Analyses page, most of the US is under a blanket of snow. Record cold temperatures are being set in the northern tier while tornadoes sweep across the south. Even sunny Florida has had to contend with overnight freezes in the interior that threatened citrus crops. Average low temperatures ranged from the mid-20s, mainly in north Florida, to the mid-40s. Alachua recorded the lowest at 25 degrees and Fort Lauderdale the highest at 46 degrees.

While unusually high snowfall has disrupted the travel plans of millions of Americans, freezing temperatures have taken the lives of hundreds of people from Central Europe to South Asia. The BBC reports that in Poland, 49 people have died; in Ukraine, 83; in Russia, 88; and in India, at least 93. The majority of those dead are the elderly and the homeless.

Russia is in the icy grip of its coldest December on record. Temperatures in Russia have been 10 to 15 degrees below average. This has people in Europe recalling last winter’s severe, snowy cold snap across central and eastern Europe in January that left at least 36 people dead, cut off power to towns, and snarled traffic.

In Siberia, daily low temperatures have been dropping to -50°F (-47°C) for several weeks now. Siberians are accustomed to the cold, but temperatures this low have not been seen in 70 years. According to ABC News, in just one week, the cold killed 17 people, and doctors amputated the limbs of at least 70 others who suffered severe frostbite.

The Environmental Information Center (EIC) of Mongolia reports that there have been severe snow storms in rural areas in the past few weeks which resulted in around 70% being covered in snow. According to the EIC, “In December, the weather will be colder than average in Mongolia, and snowfalls and blizzards will also be at a greater magnitude than average. The snow that currently covers the landscape will freeze in place in the coming month [December] which means the situation for domesticated livestock in rural provinces is expected to worsen.”

Meanwhile, September 2012 witnessed two opposite records for polar sea ice. Two weeks after the Arctic Ocean’s ice cap experienced an all-time summertime low for the satellite era (left), Antarctic sea ice reached a record winter maximum extent(right).

According to some, the rapid ice loss in the Arctic is strongly related to warming in the region, although storms and winds contribute as well. A degree or two change in the temperature of warm currents from the south can have a significant impact on both Arctic pack ice and the glaciers of Greenland. In the Antarctic, processes which govern ice changes are more complex and not as well-understood, but it is thought changes in atmospheric circulation and precipitation may be behind the slow increase in ice. But is this comparing apples and oranges?

The Antarctic is a continent surrounded by ocean. As a consequence, during the summer, sea ice breaks up and drifts northward unimpeded, where the great majority of it melts every summer. This happens with or without climate change. Perhaps more significant is the thickening of the glacial ice sheet that covers the southernmost continent.

The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. There are few escape routes for the sea ice that forms each winter and so, although some melts each year, some stays, surviving the summer and thickening each winter. Climate alarmists would have us believe that the melting ice in the Arctic is a crisis, while the growing ice in the Antarctic is insignificant. In reality, the dynamics of both sets of pack ice are poorly understood.

So what does all this mean winter weather mean for climate change? Not much. Over the past several centuries we have seen temperatures trend upward and downward, but even during warming trends there can be severe winters and even during cooling trends there can be scorching summers. People should remember that there was a significant period of cooling during the middle of the 20th century and that during the mid-19th century people were trying to figure out how to stop advancing glaciers in the European Alps. Here is a chilling thought, what if global temperatures took a turn for the cooler? Historical data show that a cooling climate is significantly more lugubrious than a warming one.

More than a decade ago, I moved to Arkansas, just in time for a solid month of temperatures in the triple digits (Fahrenheit). That Christmas, we had an ice storm and a solid week of freezing temperatures (and the added bonus of power outages). Since then, there have been no similar extremes in my local weather—until this year.

The truth is that short term climatic conditions, meaning weather, is highly variable and not an indicator of longer term trends. Even decade length trends do not predict the future, as has been plainly demonstrated by the rising temperatures of the 1990s giving way to a decade and a half of flat temperatures. The only people who claim to know what Earth’s climate will do in the future are fools and lairs—nature keeps its own council. In the meantime, I suggest you do what I do, try to enjoy whatever conditions nature throws our way.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

The Resilient Earth, 27 December 2012