Climate change role in cold snap triggers debate

Contrary to Rush Limbaugh’s assertion, "polar vortex" is not a concept created by the liberal media just last week to promote a climate-change agenda.
MCT Regional News
Jan 13, 2014

North America’s sudden fascination with the swirling, icy-cold air mass called the polar vortex has — if nothing else — expanded the meteorological vocabulary of millions of people, from late-night talk-show hosts tossing around their quips to ordinary people who share opinions on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.

But it’s also quietly opened up an ethical debate among mainstream scientists over how hard they should promote any and all possible links between climate change and the planetary effects of it, especially when they’re in early phases of research.

In today’s wired-up world of rapid, online communication, the lines can get blurred between perceptions of scientists doing their jobs and environmentalists crying wolf.

First, let’s set the stage with a description of what the polar vortex is.

Think of it as a cap above the Arctic Circle held in place by the jet stream, a band of strong wind that surrounds it. The jet stream gets its strength and energy from the convergence of cold air in the north and warm air in the south.

Under normal circumstances, the polar vortex spins at speeds of 100 mph or more.

Meteorologists say it’s like a child’s spinning top: When it’s whirling at full speed, it stays in place.

When a weak spot forms in the jet stream, the polar vortex can become unstable and wobble like a spinning top does when it’s slowing down. Or, as some experts said in interviews posted on the Internet, it can wobble like humans do after imbibing too much alcohol.

For whatever reason, the polar vortex strayed from home last week.

It shifted or may have even broken apart when the atmospheric pressure that normally holds it back weakened.

It brought Arcticlike wind chills of nearly minus 50 degrees to the Great Lakes region and the Upper Midwest, as well as unusual cold to the South last week. Toledo saw daily low record temperatures of minus 15 and minus 14 degrees.

The polar vortex hasn’t held that tight a grip on North America for about 20 years.

But it’s done a number on parts of Europe and northern Asia more recently.

Nothing new

The polar vortex is not new, contrary to conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s assertion it was a concept created by the liberal media just last week to promote a climate-change agenda.

The term was used in academic papers as far back as 1940.

By the 1950s, it was in more than a dozen scientific articles. The American Meteorological Society said it included the term “polar vortex” in its very first AMS Glossary of Meteorology it published in 1959.

“It’s kind of interesting the media just picked up on the term,” meteorologist Jeff Masters said. “We’ve been using it for years.”

Mr. Masters is meteorology director for Weather Underground, a popular online weather-tracking firm founded in Ann Arbor. It’s now owned by the Weather Channel.

Climate change is, of course, a long-term trend people generally associate with global warming, even though scientists have said it is not completely synonymous with it.

Under certain models, a few parts of the world gradually may be getting cooler while the rest of the world swelters.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Arctic sea ice

The debate over the polar vortex comes down to how much the massive loss of Arctic sea ice may be weakening the strength of the jet stream in the atmosphere, making the jet stream and the polar vortex unstable.

The Arctic has less than half the sea ice it did 50 years ago each September, the most critical month up there because it’s the end of the summer thaw and the start of the refreezing period.

Ice refreezes as temperatures drop, but not necessarily all of it does. And scientists who specialize in the study of ice argue the new layer is thinner and less robust than what has been there for centuries.

Promoted largely by Jennifer Francis, a research professor for Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences who specializes in Arctic atmospheric issues, the research is in its early stages. It is not widely embraced, nor is it widely refuted by mainstream science.

The hypothesis goes like this:

The loss of sea ice has warmed up the Arctic Ocean because it has exposed more water, allowing more sunlight and heat to be absorbed.

Ocean water, because it’s darker than ice and snow, warms faster and accelerates the melting.

A warmer ocean warms the lower atmosphere. That’s well-known among oceanographers.

But the question is how much of an effect that has on the jet stream’s ability to keep the polar vortex in check come winter.

“It’s a very plausible hypothesis. Weather patterns and the jet stream: It all fits together,” Ms. Francis said.

Young research

She has tested the hypothesis largely through computer modeling, using atmospheric data from the past 30 years.

Although the research has attracted several other meteorologists and oceanographers, it’s in its infancy.

Ms. Francis said she presented her research at a scientific conference for the first time in December, 2011. Her first paper was published in March, 2012.

“Clearly, there is much more work to do. We’re a lot closer to the beginning than the end,” she said.“It’s totally an emerging field.”

She sees last week’s buzz over that hypothesis as a positive thing. She credited Mr. Limbaugh’s cracks for drawing more attention to the issue and for bringing her research under the international spotlight.

“I see it as a great opportunity, actually, because people are listening. If they’re willing to listen to people who know what they’re talking about instead of those who don’t, they might learn something,” Ms. Francis said. “We were able to get out there in front of the public in ways we haven’t before.”

James Overland, an oceanographer in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, said Ms. Francis’ hypothesis is an interesting one worthy of more research.

Mr. Overland described himself as a moderate supporter of it, someone who believes the Arctic’s melting has global consequences but hesitates to say if this is one of them.

“The changes in the Arctic itself are very big and ongoing and are beyond the point of no return,” Mr. Overland said. “It’s a real paradox. Just a little global warming gives a lot of Arctic warming.”

He said the warming ocean forms a “bubble of warm air.”

“It changes the wind patterns. The only way of looking at it is the air is warming faster than at the midlatitude,” Mr. Overland said, referring to the latitudes that encompass most of the United States. “When you get more of a wavy pattern [in the jet stream], the winds on the part of the wave carry winds south.”

Greenland serves as a natural buffer, causing ripples in the jet stream like rapids in a river, he said.

But “a little bit of warming on the west side of Greenland may amplify the jet stream that’s already there,” Mr. Overland said.

Sorting things out

Scientists know the Arctic is warming. But the difficulty is sorting out what it all means.

“Is it random or is it a symptom of something going on? There’s not enough data yet to prove these linkages,” Mr. Overland said. “It could be we’re changing the probability for more events, or the randomness. We need to be aware these changes are taking place. There’s not enough years of data to prove it one way or not.”

There’s a disagreement within NOAA over how much faith to put into the hypothesis.

Martin Hoerling, a meteorologist for NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., said he doesn’t believe it’s worth pursuing because he hasn’t found evidence that a warmer ocean in September still affects the jet stream come January.

“There are many reasons why winds weaken, and Arctic sea ice could be one of them, but how do you test them?” Mr. Hoerling said. “Correlation is not the same as causality.”

A “growing body of circumstantial evidence” may exist, Mr. Hoerling said, but no smoking gun to prove anything.

The hypothesis should be recognized as just that: a hypothesis, he said.

Earth is warming. Oceans are becoming acidified. Glaciers are retreating.

Those are facts, Mr. Hoerling said.

But when the media overplay research in its early stages that has not been around long enough to be refuted or embraced by mainstream science, the public gets mixed signals about the faraway, nebulous concept of global climate change and can throw its hands in the air out of frustration, he said.

“Absolutely. If the science can’t support it, it undermines things where science is pretty solid about how climate change is affecting weather,” Mr. Hoerling said. “It gives the impression the science [of climate change] is uncertain and fragmented.”

Another view

Jason Box, a climate-change researcher at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, is one of the world’s pre-eminent Arctic researchers.

Formerly part of Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, he has done annual field research in Greenland for years and has contributed to many of North America’s leading publications and on network news programs.

He isn’t convinced there’s a strong correlation between warmer Arctic oceans and the polar vortex’s most recent visit.

He and a few other researchers said one of the best explanations for what occurred appeared in an article published Monday in AtmosNews, a publication of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. The story can be found at http://?www2.ucar.edu/?atmosnews/?opinion/?10886/?cold-hard-facts

The article does not suggest a cause-and-effect between Arctic sea loss and the movement of the polar vortex.

But it noted the freeze — as long as it seemed to last for the three days last week of dangerously low wind chills — was a relatively fast-moving system from a meteorological standpoint.

“A powerful dip in the jet stream pulled the frigid air south so quickly that it’s had little time to modify,” the article said. “... Sometimes it’s not just the cold but the rapid swings between the cold and warm that cause trouble.”

Migrating polar vortex or not, many North Americans may be surprised to learn this has — statistically, for a wide geographic region — been another winter of unusual warmth.

Citing data from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, the article states America has had four times more daily record highs than record lows as of last Sunday. Most have been in the Southeast.

While North America froze last week, Australia was smashing heat records with temperatures reaching 118 degrees.

As for the line you’ve likely heard about it getting colder than Mars, forget it. According to Mr. Masters, low temperatures on Mars reach minus 225 degrees.

———

By Tom Henry - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

Visit The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) at www.toledoblade.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services
 

Comments

jas

There is no doubt our climate is changing. Only idiots like Limbaugh refuse to admit it. The real question is how much of a role does man-made air and water "pollution" play in changing the climate. That may be subject to legitimate scientific debate.

Contango

Re: "legitimate scientific debate."

What debate? The warmers have already declared it a FACT.

Those that wanna debate are derided as "deniers" or "flat earthers."

Meanwhile global warming high priests like Al Gore continue to get rich (approx. net worth $230M), by investing in fed subsidized green energy cos.

H*ll, even Tipper had enough sense to dump his *ss.

Contango

Re: "Climate change is, of course, a long-term trend people generally associate with global warming, even though scientists have said it is not completely synonymous with it."

"Global warming" has become "climate change."

The Soviets called it "word magic." Change the name and you've 'fixed' the misperception.

According to the "warmers," without man-made global warming the temp mighta been 1º less. :)

MR.PERFECT

The Earths weather changes in patterns, always has always will. Global warming is just something politicians use so they can justify the upcoming carbon tax that's going to eat away at ALL of our pockets

MiddleRight

Climate changeologist want you to belive that man is destroying the planet. But these same scientist also want you to believe that the Earth was once one continent and that the tectonic plates moved to form the continents. Were there humans then? Maybe it was our monkey ancestors putting too much methane into the atmosphere?
So what are your scientific facts:
1. Humans are destroying the planet
2. Entire continents shifted thousands of miles without human intervention.
3. Evolution has only affected the monkey to man shift, but isn't present in any other facet of science.

Oh yeah, Al Gore cares about the enviornment so much that he has several houses, and he flys around on a private jet.

truckin

People do fail to realize. Whenever Al Gore fires up his jet to go to speak somewhere. Even if 1/2 the crowd he speaks to believes in him and never ever drives an auto again. They still would not save the amount of co2 in there life time in which that jet emits with each flight.
Just unbelievable.

propman

The weather always changes.
I rememberhow cold and windy it was during the blizzard of 78 and last weeks cold was a hicup in comparision.
Northern Ohio normally had a week with subzero highs every year.
Heck several times in the past there was a mile deep sheet of ice over Northern Ohio.
Did the cavemen cause that change with all their cars?
Go back further in time and this area was under the sea.
THE WORLD IS ALWAYS CHANGING!

kal-el

Middleright...that might be the most uninformed post I've ever read on here. And that puts you in some unique company.

1) Scientists say humans are CHANGING the planet's climate.
2) How do you think earthquakes occur?
3) Evolution applies to all living things. All dogs, for example have a common ancestor in the wolf. Do you think a poodle resembles a wolf in any way? Same with micro-organisms, which adapt to their environment, which is why we see infections that are becoming antibiotic resistant.

I'm adding 4) Pope John Paul published an encyclical that describes why evolution is not inconsistent with Christianity. It's time for certain Christians to stop being afraid of science. God gave you a brain for a reason. Use it.

truckin

WOW
1..Show me a scientists who says Humans are at fault, and i'll show you one with government funding behind him/her
2..So earth quakes have NEVER happened before man??
3..Evolution is ever-changing right?? why haven't there ever been recorded a monkey swinging on a limb and one day just started walking/talking his way out of the zoo/jungle??
4.. Pope John Paul. I just love the way folks as you, NEVER speak of religion unless one says something that goes with your narrative?
so if a mountain starts rising again or a new island appears in the Pacific or the Mississippi shakes and splits wider it's all because of humans???
Pollution yes is a problem.. for our water supply, which is essential to ALL living things..
But if the Earth was not meant for HUMANS and we were not meant to enjoy our creations for an easier life? Then what or who is EARTH for?
No one is afraid of science..just there will ALWAYS be things waaayyyyy to mystical to explain. PERIOD

KURTje

Read in Popular Science (current edition) where a Russian Icebreaker has been used in a different fashion for Artic Use. Article stated that shipping lanes & exploration of oil should go forward with less difficulty because of lower temps there. The article was about the icebreaker's new engineering btw, not climate change.

hit the road jack

Climate change is just a few rich pr!cks to get even richer,how is me paying more taxes to them make the world safer or get rid of climate change? it doesn't!
Seems funny the only ones who spew this crap are the dumocrats who want to profit from it somehow.

Cliff Cannon

“...if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn't choose human beings for the job.

But here's an extremely salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.”
― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Few if any, debates are more heated then mankind's affect on Mother Earth. Being a long time member of " Greenpeace " as well as " Sierra Club "I certainly wear the title " environmental wacko " with great pride. Because all that means to me is ---I care about my affect on Mother Nature.( I also can not stomach Al Gore )


Having recently been fortunate enough to purchase Mr. Bryson's book in tape form from our public library. I urge anyone with an interest in science (aka; Mother Nature) to read or listen to it. As the book leads it's readers through so many fascinating topics on how 'we' got here. That neither time nor space would allow mention of all of them.


Bottom line ('s ) seem to certainly be Mother Nature with her incredible powers; earthquakes, volcanos ,etc is the prime mover in any climate debate.(In fact, for one example. Next time, that " super " volcano known as ' Yellowstone National Park " goes off, it will likely destroy America as we know it ) Followed, closely by man and while Mother Nature is unable to change her ways. Man is


So no matter your opinion's on changing climates, pollution, extinction's or over population. As Bryson succinctly points out. Man, with all his faults, all his ever changing technology's and with all his fights with himself. Is our planets, best hope for preserving the world's resources, all the while making it a better, cleaner,safer place. Kind of scary, ain't it ?