The short answer is yes.
A few years ago, US senator Jim Inhofe brought a snowball into Senate to prove that climate change was in fact a hoax, because it was “very, very cold out. Very unseasonable. ” While he was quickly rebutted with more (science-based) facts, this argument seems to resurface every winter. After years of hearing about climate change under the moniker Global Warming, it’s not difficult to understand why skeptics latch onto cold weather as evidence to undermine scientific consensus.
But, just as increasing wildfires and stronger hurricanes can be explained by climate change, so too can colder winters. Here’s a *quick* explanation of why extreme cold temperatures (it was -48 in Saskatoon today) actually make total sense in a changing climate.
First, we have to understand that weather and climate are different things. Climate is how the atmosphere behaves over long periods of time and large regions (i.e. the entire globe), and weather is the how the atmosphere acts over short periods and in generally smaller regions. Global warming is an accurate term when we look at average temperatures of the entire globe, but this warming affects different regions in different ways, and often with difficult to predict results.
This is where it gets a little complex.
Warmer weather that keeps lakes from freezing can result in more snow due to the lake-effect— when warmer moist air rising from the water mixes with cold, dry air to produce precipitation. This is a pretty familiar concept for anyone living near the great lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and even in Vancouver this week. More snow can be a good thing—not just for those of us who love to ski but because of something called albedo. Albedo is a measurement of the amount of light energy being reflected away from earth; a higher albedo helps keep the earth cool, and snow is highly reflective.
It’s not snowing at -48, though. We’ve always had some bitterly cold winter days in Saskatchewan, but climate change is dropping the mercury even more and keeping these cold systems around longer. This is linked to warming happening in the Arctic, and how that in turn affects the jet stream. The jet stream flows around the Arctic and has historically followed a wavy but mostly stable path, maintaining the polar vortex as a sort of frigid Bermuda triangle over the North Pole. As the Arctic warms, the jet stream meanders more, allowing that cold air to dip into lower latitudes and stick around longer. It’s a complex, nuanced relationship, but it boils down to warm air rising and cold air sinking, on a latitudinal scale.
Most of us tend to complain about the cold. When it’s really extreme, it interferes with outdoor activities, schools/businesses being open, and our ability to get around in vehicles and busses. But there are some benefits to frigid temperatures! Subzero temperatures can kill damaging insects and pests in agricultural soils, and a big snowpack recharges groundwater when it melts. This can translate to economic benefits such as better harvests and more “fuel” for hydro power plants. Extended periods of extreme cold also slow the spread of the mountain pine beetle in the Boreal, and healthy forests store more carbon. Mosquito and tick populations also shrink following colder winters, which can reduce instances of disease transmitted to humans. Mild winters can stir animals from their hibernation early, when there’s not much to eat. The cold keeps them cozy in their dens. Cold weather is good for us humans, too. It helps us sleep, improves our metabolism, lets our brains work better, and improves our skin.
My pro-tip for dealing with the cold: layer, layer, layer, and find a good wool scarf!
What do you love about cold weather and snow days?
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