Climate Destabilization & Cold Winter Weather

Climate change means “global warming”, so how can severe winter storms and excessively cold breezes be evidence of a warming climate? The key is in the word “global”: the warming of the overall global average temperature need not manifest in all places at all times as warmer weather. Throughout the history of human civilization, the Earth’s climate has remained relatively stable, due to optimal global average temperatures; as global average temperatures slip outside that optimal range, the warmer air makes the interaction between climate systems more inconsistent and more severe.

So, while monsoons are failing across Africa and southern Asia, and major rivers are starting to run dry for part of the year, failing to reach the sea, in northern climate bands, storms are getting to be more severe and winter weather is hitting harder. This is because climate bands themselves are blurring, becoming less rigid, less reliable, and so in traditionally temperate climate zones, arctic and tropical air are coming together more often than before, both demonstrating and exacerbating the ongoing destabilization of major climate patterns.

On Sunday in New York City, freezing temperatures, dense snowfall and high winds all coincided with thunder, to the surprise of many, who had never observed this phenomenon before. As explained on the local news, such events can happen when the right combination of factors create a storm with some of the characteristics of summer storms. That means thunder can accompany snowfall if the cloud patterns are being fed by the right mix of freezing air and warmer southerly sea air.

The concern climate scientists have about global warming is not warm days as such, or mild winters, but rather the cumulative effect of warmer global average temperatures. That effect is widespread destabilization of vital climate patterns, and the resulting feedback loop, which would turn warmer high-altitude temperatures into melting glaciers, reduced precipitation and rising sea levels.

If the weather you’re seeing in your hometown is colder than usual, it is not evidence that the global average temperature is not warming. It is, in fact, consistent with a warming global climate to see weather that is more extreme in temperature or precipitation than has historically been the case in a given region. One blizzard is not itself proof of global climate destabilization, but a mounting pattern over several years, where tornadoes converge on New York City (September 2010), more than 20% of Pakistan’s entire territory is inundated (summer 2010), hurricanes are more frequent, more numerous and more intense on average (2004-2010), and crops are under increased threat from frost in places like Brazil, Florida and India (1998-2010), are evidence of the destabilization of major climate patterns.

The persistent and accelerating melt of Antarctic ice shelves, and their calving into the planet’s oceans, is further evidence of a persistent and mounting global increase in annual average temperatures. No system on Earth is entirely closed. Systems interact, which means chemical compositions of regional air and water flows, temperature adjustments, and frequency and precision of ecosystem services all interact and affect one another.

Such processes honor no political borders, recognize no economic zones and respect no observable boundaries. The warming of waters in the Gulf of Mexico means the Gulf Stream carries that warmer water to northwestern Europe, gradually warming the chill arctic waters, which then become less effective at rapidly cooling the Gulf Stream waters. This is important, because that rapid cooling generates the world’s most massive and powerful waterfall, as the cooled water plunges to the bottom, and flows around Europe and Africa into the Indian Ocean. That Deep Ocean Current relies on the proper balance of warm and cool water at the precise point where falling water can push the right volume of water around the globe, at the right temperature to maintain key surface temperatures and major climate bands.

To understand climate destabilization, it’s more instructive to think about the snowflake than the thermometer: cool temperatures don’t always bring snow, because weather is highly variable from moment to moment; but the fragile, tiny snowflake, of itself harmless, can become a paralyzing force across an entire region. Little incremental ticks of climate relevant data can mount to generate catastrophic change.

Today, we are digging out from under 25 inches of snow that fell in less than 24 hours. Digging out from under comprehensively destabilized global climate systems will not be so easy. The smart money tends to flow toward the more rational approach to problem solving. Having no plan but wait-and-see leads to transit collapse, states of emergency and regional collapse. The smart money for future investment wants to support more rational behavior, the kind that honors human need, human rights and the logic whereby democracy is highly capable of coordinated human brilliance.

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Originally published December 27, 2010, at

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