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Is the polar vortex linked to climate change?

The real face of winter.  Five cyclonic swirls interact in this water vapor satellite image to create this image of “Old Man Winter” on Feb. 8, 2007.
The real face of winter. Five cyclonic swirls interact in this water vapor satellite image to create this image of “Old Man Winter” on Feb. 8, 2007.
Plymouth State University

ALERT: This is a weather-torial. The opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Although it has retreated to high latitudes, the so-called “polar vortex” remains in the news. The real “vortex” remains locked in place near the North Pole. Now it’s time for us humans to create our own “polar vortex.”

OMG and right on cue. The White House has just chimed in on the recent “polar vortex.” According to a White House web posting, there will be a discussion today (Fri., Jan. 10, 2014 at 2 p.m. E.S.T.), entitled, “We the Geeks: ‘Polar Vortex’ and Extreme Weather.” The program is supposed to involve, “…a conversation with leading meteorologists, climate scientists, and weather experts about why temperatures dipped to such frigid lows this week, how weather experts turn raw data into useful forecasts, and what we know about extreme weather events in the context of a changing climate.”

Further, the web site notes that, “…We know that no single weather episode proves or disproves climate change. Climate refers to the patterns observed in the weather over time and space – in terms of averages, variations, and probabilities. But we also know that this week’s cold spell is of a type there’s reason to believe may become more frequent in a world that’s getting warmer, on average, because of greenhouse-gas pollution.”

Sounds as though the White House wants global warming to be proven by both heat waves and cold spells. This is akin to media reports back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, when heat waves were linked to both El Nino and La Nina.

And this is the same cause-effect issue I raised in my “polar vortex” article yesterday. Things may be related, but the situations described in cause-effect could be reversed, such that the effect becomes the cause and vice versa. It’s even possible that relationship has no cause-effect linkage.

Dr. Clifford Mass just posted a rather informative blog about the “polar vortex” in which he strongly suggested that both the far right (Rush Limbaugh) and the far left (far too many to list) are both incorrect in their statements delinking or linking the “polar vortex,” respectively, to climate change. This would include the White House’s back-handed suggestion that the “vortex” is somehow tied to climate change. I encourage all of my readers to read Mass’ blog.

Similarly, in an Associated Press (AP) story authored by Seth Borenstein, Greg Carbin, a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) meteorologist cites data he analyzed to conclude that, “these types of events (my insert, extreme cold waves) have actually become more infrequent than they were in the past. This is why there was such a big buzz because people have such short memories."

Hence, if Carbin is correct, then the White House is incorrect.

What bothers me the most about the “conversation” scheduled for today is how stacked the deck is. Dr. Marshall Shepherd, AMS President, is a noted scientist. However, he is definitely strongly leaning toward the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Jim Overland, Arctic researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will likely espouse the political position of NOAA. Climate Central, which seems to be more independent, still receives a large part of its funding from government agencies, all of which sit in the human-caused climate change camp. Then we have two additional media representatives. One is from the green-based, GE-owned, Weather Channel and the other from the liberally-focused Washington Post. Still, Jason Samenow (Post) may prove to be the most balanced of the five.

Unfortunately, this panel of “experts” is far from the cadre of people (on both sides of the climate change issue) whom I would rate as “experts.”

Given the myriad of weather and climate experts that cover the entire scientific landscape, I would have thought that the White House could have, should have, been far more balanced in its approach to this non-climate event. Why am I surprised that the panel isn’t balanced?

John Flesher, in another AP article (Wed., Jan. 8, 2014), notes that the recent cold spell actually has many positives. These include killing large numbers of some insect larvae (e.g., emerald ash borer) that are devastating trees across the Upper Midwest; an increased ice cover across some of the Great Lakes, suggesting some relief from low lake levels during spring months; and in the Deep South, improved orange sweetness because the fruits won’t mature as quickly.

Skiing across places like Michigan and Minnesota has certainly received a fiscal shot in the arm; ice fishing and ice sailing across the Upper Midwest is clearly safer due to deeper lake ice; and snow removal services have made lots of money.

There are many negatives, as well. For example, some city snow removal budgets have taken a hit. Transportation has been significantly disrupted (with thousands of flight cancellations daily for almost a week) due to snow and cold. And schools across the Nation have suffered a spate of snow and cold cancellations.

For years, however, local snow removal budgets have enjoyed surpluses. Had city bureaucrats stockpiled money (as they stockpile salt and sand) they would have had funds available this year. Flight cancellations were not only linked to weather. They were linked to recent (2010) FAA rule changes that penalized airlines for tarmac and other delays and passenger inconvenience. This has forced airlines to be more proactive in cancelling flights in advance. In olden days, flights may have still have been completed. Now, they are cancelled. This self-fulfilling prophesy of linking impacts to supposed weather causation is seriously flawed. Finally, while some school districts (e.g., the entire state of Minnesota) were concerned about student safety (students standing at bus stops in minus 50 wind chill readings), other school districts were faced with buses and school buildings that had been idle for two weeks of holiday break. Starting buses in such cold weather could have caused damage to the engines. Some school heating systems may not have worked properly.

On the economic front, various experts talking on TV financial news shows noted that the overall impact to the U.S. economy was expected to be minimal. Fossil fuel supplies seemed to be adequate to handle the cold spell, without shortages developing. The Florida cold did not seem to be enough to damage produce.

Finally, the beauty of the arctic outbreak, can’t be dismissed. Postings across Facebook, other social media and news web sites showed frozen river and lake waters, frozen waterfalls, ice-laden Great Lakes lighthouses and buildings, frosty bank thermometer signs, encased humans and much more. The patterns and images that nature brings forth sometimes require extreme measures.

My contribution to this collective of wintry images is this water vapor based satellite image from February 2007. It shouldn’t take much imagination to see that Old Man Winter (thanks to the arrangement of 5 cyclonic swirls comprising the “polar vortex”) is glaring at all of us mere mortals (Fig. 1). Keep this image at the ready so that when the next cold wave arrives, you’ll know who is really in charge (the forces of nature).

© 2014 H. Michael Mogil

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