Why Is It So Cold? Should the Big Freeze Alter Our Approach to Climate Change?
Preface: If you believe in man-made
global warming, please read this essay from the beginning to the end.
If you are skeptical of man-made global warming, please skip ahead to the last two sections of this essay so that you see where I'm going.
Europe, the U.S. East Coast, and many other places are suffering through one of the coldest winters on record.
How can this be when we are supposedly experiencing global warming?
Is the Gulf Stream Shutting Down?
Climate scientists have long speculated that global warming could cause a new ice age in.
As I noted in May:
As the red arrows at the left of the following drawing show, the Gulf
Stream runs from Florida up the Eastern Coast of the United States:
[Click here for full image.]
Global warming activists have warned for years that warming could cause the "great conveyor belt" of warm ocean water to shut down. They say that such a shut down could - in turn - cause the climate to abruptly change, and a new ice age to begin. (This
essay neither tries to endorse or refute global warming or global
cooling in general: I am focusing solely on the oil spill.)
The drawing above shows the worldwide "great conveyer belt" of ocean currents, which are largely driven by the interaction of normal ocean water with colder and saltier ocean currents.
Did the Oil Spill Make It Worse?
Italian PhD professor of physics at the Frascati National Laboratories
and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (Gianluigi Zangari) argues
that an analysis of satellite data shows that the loop current was
stopped for the first time a month or two after the BP oil spill
started, and concludes:
Since comparative analysis
with past satellite data until may 2010 didn’t show relevant anomalies,
it might be therefore plausible to correlate the breaking of the Loop
Current with the biochemical and physical action of the BP Oil Spill on
the Gulf Stream.
It is reasonable to foresee the threat that the
breaking of a crucial warm stream as the Loop Current may generate a
chain reaction of unpredictable critical phenomena and instabilities due
to strong non linearities which may have serious consequences on the
dynamics of the Gulf Stream thermoregulation activity of the Global
Professor Zangari does not propose a
mechanism by which the oil stops the loop current, but on May 2nd (2
weeks after the start of the oil spill), I proposed a mechanism, but noted that such an event was extremely unlikely:
The Associated Press notes:
Experts warned that an uncontrolled gusher could create a nightmare scenario if the Gulf Stream carries it toward the Atlantic.
This would, in fact, be very bad, as it would carry oil far up the Eastern seaboard.
How could the oil get all the way from Louisiana to Florida, where the Gulf Stream flows?
[The Loop Current].
In a worst-case scenario - if the oil leak continued for a very long period of time - the oil could conceivably be carried from the Gulf Stream into world-wide ocean currents (see drawing above).
I do not believe
this will happen. Even with the staggering quantity of oil being
released, I don't think it's enough to make its way into other ocean
currents. I think that either engineers will figure out how to cap the
leak, or the oil deposits will simply run out. It might get into the
Gulf loop current, and some might get into the Gulf Stream. But I don't
believe the apocalyptic scenarios where oil is carried world-wide by
the Gulf Stream or other ocean currents.
Changing the Climate
There is an even more dramatic - but even less likely - scenario.
Conceivably - if the oil spill continued for years - the greater thickness or "viscosity" of the oil in comparison to ocean water, or the different ability of oil and seawater to hold warmth (called "specific heat"),
could interfere with the normal temperature and salinity processes
which drive the ocean currents, and thus shut down the ocean currents
and change the world's climate.
However, while this is an interesting theory (and could make for a good novel or movie), it simply will not happen.
there simply is not enough oil in the leaking oil pocket to interfere
with global ocean currents. And even if this turns out to be a much
bigger oil pocket than geologists predict, some smart engineer will
figure out how to cap the leak well before any doomsday scenario could
I certainly hope that what I wrote in May - before the Loop Current
allegedly shut down - was right, and that there wasn't enough oil to
affect climate. But one season does not make a trend, and we will have
to see if the Loop Current is back to normal next year or is
Jet Stream Shifting North?
Scientists say that the jet stream - - has moved North.
example, the University of Arizona created the following graphic in
2008 to illustrate the Northern shift of the jet stream between 1978 and
1997 (via Scientific American):
moisture from Pacific storms over the U.S.
has shifted north in recent decades, making
the arid Southwest even drier.
Image: COURTESY OF STEPHANIE MCAFEE
UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/2008
Associated Press wrote in 2008:
The jet stream — America's stormy weather maker — is creeping northward and weakening, new research shows.
potentially means less rain in the already dry South and Southwest and
more storms in the North. And it could also translate into more and
stronger hurricanes since the jet stream suppresses their formation.
The study's authors said they have to do more research to pinpoint
From 1979 to 2001, the Northern
Hemisphere's jet stream moved northward on average at a rate of about
1.25 miles a year, according to the paper published Friday in the
journal Geophysical Research Letters. The authors suspect global warming is the cause, but have yet to prove it.
jet stream is a high-speed, constantly shifting river of air about
30,000 feet above the ground that guides storm systems and cool air
around the globe. And when it moves away from a region, high pressure
and clear skies predominate.
Two other jet streams in the Southern Hemisphere are also shifting poleward, the study found.
study looked at the average location of the constantly moving jet
stream and found that when looked at over decades, it has shifted
northward. The study's authors and other scientists suggest that the
widening of the Earth's tropical belt — a development documented last
year — is pushing the three jet streams toward the poles.
models have long predicted that with global warming, the world's jet
streams would move that way, so it makes sense to think that's what
happening, Caldeira said. However, proving it is a rigorous process,
using complex computer models to factor in all sorts of possibilities.
That has not been done yet.
"We are seeing a general
northward shift of all sorts of phenomena in the Northern Hemisphere
occurring at rates that are faster than what ecosystems can keep up
with," he said.Dian Seidel, a research meteorologist for the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who wrote a study about the
widening tropical belt last year, said she was surprised that Caldeira
found such a small shift.
Jet Stream Temporarily Shifting South?
neither a shutdown of the conveyor belt or a Northward-shifting jet
stream would explain the extremely cold being experienced right now in
the U.S. East Coast, Southern California, Australia and many other
southerly locations. Specifically, if either condition was occurring,
England and other parts of Europe would indeed be getting hit with
blizzards, but Southerly locations shouldn't also be getting walloped.
In other words, neither theory can explain what we are currently
Indeed, the Met - England's official climate agency - says that the problem isn't that the jet stream has shifted North, but that it has temporarily shifted South. As the Daily Mail noted last week:
Daily mean temperature anomalies around the world between 1st December
and 20th December compared with the 30 year long term average between
1961 and 1990
During these grey winters, Britain's prevailing
winds come from the west and south west, and bring with them warm and
moist air from the sub-tropical Atlantic.
This year a
high-pressure weather system over the Atlantic is blocking the jet
stream’s normal path and forcing it to the north and south of Europe.
areas of high pressure act like stones in a stream - blocking the
normal flow of milder air from the west and instead forcing colder air
from the north down across the UK.
In California more than 12
inches of rain has fallen in parts of the Santa Monica Mountains in the
south and 13 feet of snow has accumulated at Mammoth Mountain ski
And Australians expecting to bask in early summer sun
this Christmas are instead shivering as icy gusts sweeping up from the
Southern Ocean have blanketed parts of east coast states New South
Wales and Victoria with up to four inches of snow.
When the jet-stream is blocked by high pressure it dips southwards and lets freezing air flood in from the Arctic regions.
weather patterns are also causing havoc across the may also be
affecting the weather, such as the current in the tropical Pacific
Ocean, called La Nina, which is disturbing the jetstream over the north
Pacific and North America.
A combination of our usual wet
Atlantic weather systems striking these freezing cold fronts results in
huge amounts of snowfall – and brings Britain grinding to a halt.
A Met Office spokesman: ‘The problem is we are not getting the warmer Atlantic air that normally keeps our winters mild.’
‘We can see that it is unseasonably warm over Canada and Greenland, this is where warm air has been diverted.’
said that any change in the pressure over the Atlantic would need to
last for several days before we would notice any change in the weather
Freezing-cold winters and milder winters tend to cluster in groups, as the jet stream changes its path.
are still unsure why this is but suspect it may be related to the EL
Nino weather system as well as changes in sea temperatures and solar
A system of high pressure has forced the jet stream further south, allowing biting cold winds in from the north
In January, Weather.com explained last year's cold snap in terms of the "Greenland Block":
Jet Stream Pattern during a Greenland Block
there are other determining factors which caused the recent prolonged
arctic cold spell, one of main culprits was something called the
The Greenland Block is a very strong area of high pressure located over the country of Greenland.
The block does what you may think it does - it creates an atmospheric traffic jam.
currents want to move west to east (in the northern hemisphere) but
when the Greenland Block is in place it is has to navigate around the
block. So air currents either flow up and around the block or dig south.
the graphic above, the block is designated by a ridge of high pressure
with the jet stream buckling northward up and around the high pressure
On either side of the ridge, the jet stream buckles
southward creating two troughs - one located over the central and
eastern United States and another over western and central Europe.
As the trough digs south, arctic air is no longer locked in the...well...arctic. It is free to spill away from the cold dungeon.
The cold air surges southward
and depending on how far south the jet stream digs, is sometimes
capable of reaching typically mild or warm areas such as south Texas,
the Deep South and Florida.
Over Europe, the cold air originates out of Siberia and spill south and west overwhelming much of the continent.
Stuck Low Pressure System Means a Persistent Northerly Flow
In an Op-Ed in the New York Times, climate scientist Judah Cohen focuses on Siberia's role in the process:
global temperatures have warmed and as Arctic sea ice has melted over
the past two and a half decades, more moisture has become available to
fall as snow over the continents. So the snow cover across Siberia in
the fall has steadily increased.
The sun’s energy
reflects off the bright white snow and escapes back out to space. As a
result, the temperature cools. When snow cover is more abundant in
Siberia, it creates an unusually large dome of cold air next to the
mountains, and this amplifies the standing waves in the atmosphere,
just as a bigger rock in a stream increases the size of the waves of
water flowing by.
The increased wave energy in the air
spreads both horizontally, around the Northern Hemisphere, and
vertically, up into the stratosphere and down toward the earth’s
surface. In response, the jet stream, instead of flowing predominantly
west to east as usual, meanders more north and south. In winter, this
change in flow sends warm air north from the subtropical oceans into
Alaska and Greenland, but it also pushes cold air south from the Arctic
on the east side of the Rockies. Meanwhile, across Eurasia, cold air
from Siberia spills south into East Asia and even southwestward into
That is why the Eastern United States, Northern
Europe and East Asia have experienced extraordinarily snowy and cold
winters since the turn of this century. Most forecasts have failed to
predict these colder winters, however, because the primary drivers in
their models are the oceans, which have been warming even as winters
have grown chillier. They have ignored the snow in Siberia.
Do We Really Know What's Causing It?
The Independent reported last week:
have established a link between the cold, snowy winters in Britain and
melting sea ice in the Arctic and have warned that long periods of
freezing weather are likely to become more frequent in years to come.
analysis of the ice-free regions of the Arctic Ocean has found that
the higher temperatures there caused by global warming, which have
melted the sea ice in the summer months, have paradoxically increased
the chances of colder winters in Britain and the rest of northern
The findings are being assessed
by British climate scientists, who have been asked by ministers for
advice on whether the past two cold winters are part of a wider pattern
of climate change ....
Some climate scientists believe
that the dramatic retreat of the Arctic sea ice over the past 30 years
has begun to change the wind patterns over much of the northern
hemisphere, causing cold, Arctic air to be funnelled over Britain
during winter, replacing the mild westerly airstream that normally
dominates the UK's weather.
researchers used computer models to assess the impact of the
disappearing Arctic sea ice, particularly in the area of the Barents
and Kara seas north of Scandinavia and Russia, which have experienced
unprecedented losses of sea ice during summer.
models found that, as the ice cap over the ocean disappeared, this
allowed the heat of the relatively warm seawater to escape into the much
colder atmosphere above, creating an area of high pressure surrounded
by clockwise-moving winds that sweep down from the polar region over
Europe and the British Isles. Vladimir Petoukhov, who carried out the
study at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany,
said the computer simulations showed that the disappearing sea ice is
likely to have widespread and unpredictable impacts on the climate of
the northern hemisphere.
One of the principal
predictions of the study was that the warming of the air over the
ice-free seas is likely to bring bitterly cold air to Europe during the
winter months, Dr Petoukhov said. "This is not what one would expect.
Whoever thinks that the shrinking of some far away sea-ice won't bother
him could be wrong. There are complex interconnections in the climate system, and in the Barents-Kara Sea we might have discovered a powerful feedback mechanism," he said.
the paper, submitted in November 2009 but published last month in the
Journal of Geophysical Research, Dr Petoukhov and his colleague
Vladimir Semenov write: "Our results imply that several recent severe
winters do not conflict with the global warming picture but rather
Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at the Potsdam
Institute, said the floating sea ice in winter insulates the relatively
warm seawater from the bitterly cold temperatures of the air above it,
which can be around -20C or -30C.
sea ice is shrinking and at the moment it is at a record low for
mid-to-late December, which provides a big heat source for the
atmosphere," Professor Rahmstorf said. "The open ocean actually heats
the atmosphere above because the ocean in the Arctic is about 0C, and
that's much warmer than the atmosphere about it. This is a massive
change compared with an ice-covered ocean, where the ice operates like a
lid. You don't get that heating from below.
model simulations show that, when you don't get ice on the Barents and
Kara seas, that promotes the formation of a high-pressure system
there, and, because the airflow is clockwise around the high, it brings
cold, polar air right into Europe, which leads to cold conditions here
while it is unusually warm elsewhere, especially in the Arctic," he
scientists emphasised that the climate is complex and there were other
factors at play. It is, they said, too early to be sure if the past
two cold winters are due to the ice-free Arctic.
want to be cautious, but basically in the past couple of months the
sea ice cover has been low and so, according to the model simulations,
that would encourage this kind of weather pattern," Professor Rahmstorf
"The last winter of 2009-10 turned out
to be fitting that pattern very well, and perhaps this winter as well,
so that is three data points. I would say it's not definite
confirmation of the mechanism, but it certainly fits the pattern," he
The computer model used by the scientists
also predicted that, as the ice cover continues to be lost, the
weather pattern is likely to shift back into a phase of
warmer-than-usual winters. Global warming will also continue to warm the
Arctic air mass, Professor Rahmstorf said.
you look ahead 40 or 50 years, these cold winters will be getting
warmer because, even though you are getting an inflow of cold polar
air, that air mass is getting warmer because of the greenhouse effect,"
he said. "So it's a transient phenomenon. In the long run, global
warming wins out."
leading proponents of this theory admit that their theory is only
tentative, and that further research is needed to confirm or deny that
the theory explains the last couple of winters.
Indeed, the BBC recently chalked up the variation in the jet stream to random cycles:
"normal" circumstances, this jet stream brings in weather systems from
the Atlantic, causing the wet, windy, cloudy weather that is typically
associated with mild British winters.
But the path of the jet
stream, like this year, can wander, meaning the mild weather systems
are not being brought to the UK in the same way.
During these periods of "weakening westerlies" the cold weather from the north moves in.
Years of weakening westerlies have come in clumps of three and four in recent decades. So we could well get another very cold winter next year.
it does not mean the UK is getting colder. The cold winters of the
last couple of years contrast with the mild winters that preceded them.
But in the 1960s and 1940s there were very cold winters too.
A handful of cold winters means no more than a handful of hot summers.
Skeptics of man-made global warming point to the sun as the cause of climate change.
As I noted
last year, the sun and other things beyond our atmosphere do, in fact,
affect the Earth more than scientists previously realized:
National Geographic reported in 2006 that the Earth's magnetic field is changing rapidly.
[Some] scientists have concluded that the Earth's magnetic shield does affects climate.
In addition, two Danish geophysicists at Aarhus University in western Denmark propose that the increased cosmic radiation allowed by a
weakened magnetic shield in turn changes the amount of rainfall at the
tropics, thus affecting climate (they acknowledge that CO2 also
affects climate, but state that climate is more complex than generally
Nigel Marsh of the Danish Space Research Institute in Copenhagen also argues
that clouds are scarce near the equator and thicker towards the
tropics, because cosmic rays have a hard time punching through Earth's
magnetic field at the equator, but can leak in through the relatively
weaker field nearer the poles. If correct, this bolsters the Danish
geophysicists' hypothesis that changes to the Earth's magnetic shield
affect cloud cover (and thus precipitation and climate in general).
it is known that intense solar activity can destroy ozone in the
Earth's atmosphere, thus affecting climactic temperatures. See this, this, this, this and this. Indeed, the effects of solar energy on ozone may be one of the main ways in which the sun influences Earth's climate.
The sun itself also affects the Earth more than previously understood. For example, according to the European Space Agency:
... have proven that sounds generated deep inside the Sun cause the
Earth to shake and vibrate in sympathy. They have found that Earth’s
magnetic field, atmosphere and terrestrial systems, all take part in
this cosmic sing-along.
Scientists have recently discovered that cosmic rays from a "mysterious source" are bombarding the Earth (and see this). This is occurring at the same time that the protective bubble around the sun that helps to shield the Earth from harmful interstellar radiation is shrinking and getting weaker.In addition, a recent study shows that increased
output from the Sun might be to blame for 10 to 30 percent of the
global warming that has been measured in the past 20 years. The sun is simply getting hotter. Indeed, solar output has been increasing steadily ever since scientists have been able to measure it. Another study shows that solar activity variations have a "marked influence" on the Earth's climate.
If extra-planetary events affect Earth's climate, wouldn't other planets in the solar system be affected as well?
The sun also apparently affects the amount of rainfall on Earth, which in turn affects climate.
As Nasa pointed out last year:
sunspot cycle is behaving a little like the stock
market. Just when you think it has hit bottom, it
goes even lower.
2008 was a bear. There were no
sunspots observed on 266 of the year's 366 days
(73%). To find a year with more blank suns, you
have to go all the way back to 1913, which had 311 spotless
days.... Prompted by these numbers, some
observers suggested that the solar cycle had hit
bottom in 2008.
Maybe not. Sunspot counts for
2009 have dropped even lower. As of March 31st,
there were no sunspots on 78 of the year's 90 days
It adds up to one inescapable
conclusion: "We're experiencing a very deep solar
minimum," says solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the
Goddard Space Flight Center.
"This is the
quietest sun we've seen in almost a century,"
agrees sunspot expert David Hathaway of the Marshall Space
As one scientific site noted in August:
cycle 23, which ended recently, lasted longer than previous cycles,
with a prolonged phase of low activity that scientists had difficulty
Nasa predicts that sun activity will pick up
again in cycle 24, but not nearly as much was seen at the height of the
last cycle around 10 years ago:
So What Should We Do?
the different theories about what is causing the extreme cold weather,
some argue that we should do nothing until the science is settled.
Indeed, given that - in the 1970s - leading scientists (including Obama's current science advisor) believed
we were facing a catastrophic ice age, and considered pouring soot
over the Arctic to melt the ice to make the world warmer, caution should be exercised by all.
Indeed, the Washington Post noted
that the government forced a switch from one type of chemical to
another because it was believed the first was enlarging the ozone hole.
However, according to the Post, the chemical which the government
demanded be used instead is 4,470 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Currently, "government scientists are studying the feasibility of sending nearly microscopic particles of specially made glass into the Earth's upper atmosphere to try to dampen the effects of 'global warming.' " Others are currently suggesting cutting down trees and burying them. Other ways to geoengineer the planet are being proposed.
we should approach climate change from the age-old axiom of "first, do
no harm", making sure that our "solutions" to not cause more damage than
On other other hand, global warming activists say
that global warming will win out in the end, that the cold snap is
temporary, and that delaying action could doom us to an unpleasant - and
very warm - future.
So what should we do?
Well, as I've repeatedly pointed out, everyone should agree on two things:
The Carbon Footprint of War
First, as Harvey Wasserman notes,
continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will more than wipe out
any reduction in carbon from the government's proposed climate measures.
Writing about the escalation in the Afghanistan war, Wasserman says:
war would also come with a carbon burst. How will the massive
emissions created by 100,000-plus soldiers in wartime be counted in the
17% reduction rubric? Will the HumVees be converted to hybrids? What
is the carbon impact of Predator bombs that destroy Afghan families and
The continuance of the Afghanistan and Iraq
wars completely and thoroughly undermines the government's claims that
there is a global warming emergency and that reducing carbon output
through cap and trade is needed to save the planet.
I can't take
anything the government says about carbon footprints seriously until the
government ends the unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For
evidence that the Iraq war is unnecessary, see this. Read this
for evidence that the U.S. could have taken Bin Laden out years ago
and avoided a decades long war in Afghanistan. And for proof that the
entire war on Muslim extremists is unnecessary for our national
security, see this.
Second, the proposed solution to global warming - cap and trade - is a scam. Specifically:
- The economists who invented cap-and-trade say that it won't work for global warming
- Many environmentalists say that carbon trading won't effectively reduce carbon emissions
bailout buddies over at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley,
Citigroup and the other Wall Street behemoths are buying heavily into
carbon trading (see this, this, this, this, this and this).
As University of Maryland professor economics professor and former
Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission Peter Morici writes:
must ensure that the banks use the trillions of dollars in federal
bailout assistance to renegotiate mortgages and make new loans to worthy
homebuyers and businesses. Obama must make certain that banks do not continue to squander federal largess by padding executive bonuses, acquiring other banks and pursuing new high-return, high-risk lines of businesses in merger activity, carbon trading
and complex derivatives. Industry leaders like Citigroup have
announced plans to move in those directions. Many of these bankers
enjoyed influence in and contributed generously to the Obama campaign.
Now it remains to be seen if a President Obama can stand up to these
same bankers and persuade or compel them to act responsibly.
other words, the same companies that made billions off of derivatives
and other scams and are now getting bailed out on your dime are going
to make billions from carbon trading.
In addition, as I have extensively discussed, soot has been discovered to be a leading cause of
snow and ice melting in the Arctic and the Himalayas, soot has a much
faster influence on temperature than CO2, and it is relatively easy to
reduce soot. (Breathing soot is also horrible for people's health, so
reducing it is a win-win). Both global warming activists and skeptics should demand international treaties which reduce soot.
Finally, Noam Chomsky and James Lovelock (environmentalist and creator of the "Gaia hypothesis") have both said
that they would be okay with an authoritarian approach to tackling
global warming. But whatever one might think about climate change, we
should agree that fascism is not justified.
* Note: No one has even asked whether or not the currents could be affected by
dumping millions of gallons of dispersant into the Gulf. Dispersant is apparently still being applied.