National Geographic News
Photo of mist risings from Lake Michigan as temperatures dipped well below zero.

Mist rises from Lake Michigan as temperatures dipped well below zero on Monday in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago.

Photograph by Scott Olson, Getty

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic News

Published January 8, 2014

The most severe cold snap in the U.S. in 20 years (see pictures) has some people questioning whether the Earth's climate is in fact warming.

The conservative website Breitbart.com has called the cold snap evidence of a global warming "hoax," while Donald Trump recently tweeted:

 

But climate scientists say the weather does not invalidate prevailing climate models, and one says that reactions to this week's polar vortex suggest that "people have forgotten what cold is like."

Over the past few days, some parts of the Midwest dipped to nearly -40°F (-40°C)—with windchill, -60°F (-51°C)—and states as far south as Alabama and Georgia experienced colder temperatures than they've had in years. More than 20 deaths have been reported as a result.

The weather has prompted Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, to poke fun at climate change advocate Al Gore: "It's cold. Al Gore told me this wouldn't happen."

On social media, people have been forwarding pictures of Al Gore looking frozen. (Jon Stewart poked fun at the controversy on The Daily Show.)

Forgotten Cold

But Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, tells National Geographic that people are missing the big picture.

"People should stick to the basics of what we know, the long-term trends, and realize that what we are talking about are global averages," he says.

Schmidt, who enjoyed a cold-weather run in Central Park on Wednesday morning, says climate data show that North America has been warming steadily over the past 30 years.

"The real story is that people have forgotten what cold weather is like," he says. "It was common 20 years ago."

Schmidt pointed to Minneapolis as one example.

In the 1970s, the city had an average of 14.7 nights with temperature below -10°F (-23°C) each year according to Climate Central, but before the recent cold snap it had only a few days that cold in the past few years. In the decade between 2002 and 2012, the average number of days below -10°F was only 3.8.

"Things have changed quite rapidly, and how surprising people find this cold is because things are becoming warmer," Schmidt says. "We're just not used to these things any more, and that means people aren't prepared."

Photograph by Jahi Chikwendiu, The Washington Post/Getty
Man camping out over a steaming street grate in Washington, DC.

Pattern of "Weird Weather"?

On the question of weather, the cold snap is another example of a pattern of "weird weather" that seems to have been affecting the world recently—including unusually warm temperatures in Alaska and Siberia at the moment and a heatwave in Australia. Most scientists say it's difficult to draw straight lines from climate change to particular weather events.

"There is a lot of speculation on how dynamics are affected by x, y, or z, but those are very tricky," Schmidt says. (Some reports have suggested that the snap could be spurred by changes in the jet stream, thanks to global warming, but Schmidt thinks the science is speculative.)

For their part, meteorologists have explained the immediate reason for the cold snap. They say air chilled in northern Canada—called a "polar vortex"—was blown into the U.S. by a kink in the jet stream, a band of strong winds in the upper level of the atmosphere.

On Tuesday, all 50 states saw freezing temperatures at some point, although forecasters said that historically that's not so unusual.

When it comes to thinking about the overall warming climate, Schmidt says it's important not to get distracted by a short-lived cooling effect.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

53 comments
R Berg
R Berg

Weather is not a constant; it varies greatly within an overall average, and the overall average is warmer worldwide over the last century, especially in the last 30 years. Clearly the average U.S. winter temperatures in the 1970's were colder than they were in the 1990's and early 2000's. Dr. James Hansen the head of NASA's study of CO2's effects on the atmosphere until two years ago gives a clear picture of the scientific studies that have been done showing these changes with the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere. Just about everything that Dr. Hansen predicted in the 1980's for these days of worldwide warmer temperatures has come to pass: The Arctic ice has been greatly reduced since 1979, especially in Northern Hemispheric summers. The ocean by Antarctica is warmer overall, even though the sea ice around it has increased; scientists do not have an explanation for that increase. Still, these people are intellectually honest enough to admit that, as they continue to seek an explanation. Hansen's studies have been published in "Storms of My Grandchildren" 2009, and are worth a read as it explains climate change due to natural,  and today's man made forcings of CO2 and other greenhouse related gases. 

Tom Moran
Tom Moran

Except the "overall warming climate" hasn't warmed much in 17 years as the "average global temperature has plateaued since 1998" according to the Jan 16 issue of Nature mag. Also, how does the ever increasing amount of CO2 in the atmosphere warm the ocean but not the atmosphere? How does your magic heat make the oceans warmer but not the atmosphere it passes through? Fairy gyres and eddies transport the missing heat to the deep ocean? How come that doesn't work in my swimming pool...the deeper, the colder. Get someone on staff who doesn't worship at the altar of Gaia and you might get some serious readers.

Tom Moran
Tom Moran

It's important for NatGeo to report that there are scientists who disagree with the holy consensus on the extent of the warming and it's cause. How does ever increasing CO2 make earth colder? Is it possible that natural variability can trump any human induced warming?

Carroll Gross
Carroll Gross

I believe scientific evidence. People are affecting climate change.

Don Walley
Don Walley

So, in other words, only the U.S. is experiencing warming since if these temps are from Canada it doesn't seem like THEY are having much warming.

thomas Langr
thomas Langr

I grew up in MN, in the 60's.  I had forgotten what cold was like, as the article suggests. This cold snap was nothing.

Mark Wallin
Mark Wallin

It's getting warmer here in BC. .Last time the Fraser River  froze over to allow horse drawn sleds to cross was 1948. we used to have lot's of ice arenas in lower mainland .It's not that it's hot or cold it is in the oceans , temperature of the water the sky ,jet stream , droughts in Africa blowing sand storms across the Atlantic . All making a crazy group of storms that are more powerful and destructive all over the world  . I don't have an education or degree in the sciences . I just listen and watch and try to remember and make my own conclusions . I think we are in a climate change we have being helping cause. 30 years ago talk was about ozone holes and cow pollution was causing it.

Luke Kahlor
Luke Kahlor

At what point do we just give up? Spend resources hiding ourselves underground with vast stores of seeds and what animal we can use... and then let the idiots live happliy on the surface till the kill themselves via pollution?   Whats the point with trying to argue with idiots and their children?  I've adapted to it, just going to try a find a quiet place to dig a really big bunker, and hope for the best.


The world doesn't want saving, costs to much.  Let the fools suffer and die, its kinder.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@KyleSager "the truth is irrepressible and only grows more obvious with time. That is how science has always worked. ...science has always naturally gravitated toward truth of its own accord. Anyone who suggest otherwise is delusional." I could not agree more with these statements. This is why the global warming cult is losing ground so rapidly. Thank you for reiterating my point.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

All cults rely on delusional thinking and magical beliefs. ie: "ALL weather events "prove" global warming". As the science repeatedly fails, people who value reason and evidence will begin to reject the warming alarmist indoctrination. Please think for yourself. If something sounds irrational (colder temps prove warming) it probably is.

Matthew Fehrens
Matthew Fehrens

If it snows, it's global warming.  Rain -- global warming.  Hot -- gw.  Cold -- gw.  Dry -- gw.   Sun rises -- gw.   Sun sets -- gw.

A relatively non-existent hurricane Sandy -- gw.

A flood in Tennessee -- gw.

No matter what happens from here on in, the AGW fear mongering crowd will always claim global warming.   

But if the climate realists attempt to point out that we're having a heavy winter, "Oh no!!!," cry the climate alarmists, "You can't use a single weather event to prove anything."

That is what's called constantly moving the goal posts to try to win an unwinnable game.   This is not a fair game.  One side will cheat and lie and move those goal posts at the drop of a hat, if they think the other side -- climate realists -- are about to score a point.

Mark Quinn
Mark Quinn

This report say's all 50 states saw freezing temperatures Tuesday. Are you trying to tell us Hawaii had freezing temps? I checked the US weather site, and the lows were in the 60s. Unless there is another 50th state, I do not know about, this report is wrong.

John C.
John C.

If it were unseasonably warm now we'd be seeing non-stop news stories of how it proved the climate was warming.


Since it's unseasonably cold we're seeing stories explaining how that also proves the climate is warming.


AGW rationale: Heads I win, tails you lose.


Maybe somebody can explain why the climate models never predicted the 15 year hiatus.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

Really? Did people affect climate change during the little ice age? Did people cause the earth to be warmer during Roman times than it is now? Why did the planet stop warming 17years ago? Did we affect that change? You don't believe evidence. Your belief is based on the faith that you have placed in the warming cults' spokespeople who rely on naive people to keep the grant money coming even as their predictive models fail again and again.

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

@Don Walley The Philippines is experiencing the worst typhoons in years. Normally we would only get typhoons that are strong as Sandy. For the past ten years, due to Global Warming, we have been experiencing Typhoons stronger than Katrina.

Tom Moran
Tom Moran

True, there's grant money, politics of taxation, wealth redistribution and the general abhorrence of the scientific method...

David Higgins
David Higgins

@Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter The Jet Stream that held the 'Polar Vortex' in place for long enough to build up the extra cold we have experienced; did in fact have the additional energy to do so because of - da da da - Global Warming. 

Richmond Acosta
Richmond Acosta

@David SeabaughI know right, scientists are so religious, they are so willing to create a warming hoax just to annoy people. (eyes rolling)

Kyle Sager
Kyle Sager

@David Seabaugh"Delusional thinking and magical beliefs"...like, "We can emit CO2 at a rate of 30 gigatonnes on an increasing trajectory over decades into the atmosphere and into oceans with no material impact."  The power regime denying science today is very reminiscent of the power regime in 1633 that denied scientists and destroyed Galileo Galilei's life.  Then, just as today, the elite power regime was protecting interests with lies.  Today, the elite regime comprises 7 of the 11 most profitable corporations in the world and the entire attendant industry.  In the 1600s, the entrenched power elite was the church.  In both cases, the power structure directly attacked science.  Regardless, more and more scientists moved away from the entrenched elite regime over time in favor of real science DESPITE heavy-handed tactics by the opposition.   Science gravitated in the direction of truth, as science always does (carbon and radiometric dating, evolution, genetics, etc, etc, etc)  The "magical thinkers" of today would have us believe today's scientists are less rigorous in general and less honest than they were 400 years ago.  That notion is laughable.  The cult of oil reveals its true colors.  Trying to turn words like "cult" and "religion" against the opposition, however, will not protect the religion of oil from global reckoning this time.  The truth is irrepressible and only grows more obvious with time.  That is how science has always worked.  Over the course four centuries, science has always naturally gravitated toward truth of its own accord.  Anyone who suggests otherwise is delusional.

Paul Steen
Paul Steen

@Matthew Fehrens  Nice try. That's a straw man argument. "If it snows, it's global warming.  Rain -- global warming.  Hot -- gw.  Cold -- gw.  Dry -- gw.   Sun rises -- gw.   Sun sets -- gw." 


Climate scientists are not saying this. They are very careful about not looking at specific events. At least, the good ones are acting this way, for either pro or con their argument.

David B.
David B.

@Mark Quinn It was freezing at the top of a volcano in Hawaii.

Matthew Fehrens
Matthew Fehrens

@John C.  -- Because when one side is always allowed to move the goal posts on a whim, they don't feel they need to explain anything.  

The true climate deniers are the AGW crowd, because they can't stand by their predictions or computer models.  As soon as those things are proven wrong, the AGW crowd switches gears and create all new claims, hoping that those will be right.

The AGW crowd is like a blindfolded soccer team, racing all over the field trying to find the net.   If this weren't so serious, it would be laughable.

John Patt
John Patt

@John C. So are you choosing to err on the side of a false negative?

John Zolis
John Zolis

@David Seabaugh You are aware that the industrial revolution is not the sole cause to greenhouse gas are you not? for instance the meat industry is the second leading cause ! last time I check romans were not vegans the industrial revolution has only quicken our pace to the precipice ! deforestation is another I can continue but if you won't take the 97% of accredited authors of abstracts in their given field truly you and other naysayers are nothing but delusional morons !  

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Richmond Acosta "the Philippines is experiencing the worst typhoons in years". This statement is factually and verifiably incorrect. Four of the worst typhoons to hit the Philippines occurred in 1881, 1867, 1897, and 1981 respectively. The one that occurred in 1881 was much stronger than any that have occurred in the past ten years. You strike me as someone who has never heard any of the arguments from the other side. Try checking out the facts rather than blindly drinking the kool-aid. It is much more rewarding.

Tom Moran
Tom Moran

So what your claiming is that this cold weather has never happened before in the history of mankind and even though here is no empirical data to link human activity to the cooling phase of the PDO you have discovered that- da da da- Warming makes winter less warmy? Rather convenient theory...

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@David Higgins thank you for providing a perfect example of a statement completely unsupported by facts or evidence. Please see numerous peer reviewed scientific papers debunking the "global warming/jet stream myth. One of many available; Climatologist Dr. Roy Spencer "there is no evidence of any unusual or unprecedented changes in the latitude or speed of the North Atlantic jet stream over the past 142 years". You are - da da da - wrong.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Richmond Acosta Obviously, you are not one that values reason and evidence. I didn't mention "religion" or "hoax". Since you don't read very well, it's understandable that you would blindly believe without researching any facts for yourself. It does require a little effort to think for yourself and research facts, but it is much more rewarding. (Eyes definitely not rolling) just a little sad that there is so much intellectual laziness represented very aptly by you and comrade Reiss.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@comrade Sager Try to keep your indoctrination lessons shorter. Very few of the peoples workers are capable of reading anything that long and rambling, much less comprehending it. Also, please throw in a few "facts" wink, wink when possible to establish the illusion of credibility. You can find endless make believe man caused global warming "facts" by watching CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, Or PBS any evening. Further, avoid out right lies when possible. (This seems to be a particular area of opportunity for you). Repeat after me: "conformity is good, I will not question my masters, I will blindly drink the kool-aid" repeat . . .

Larry Donville
Larry Donville

What I can not understand is how the people in the oil industry cannot see how their actions hurt everyone including themselves and their offspring

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

@Richmond Acosta you are the only person on here making wild statements completely unsupported by facts, evidence, or reason. The very definition of lunacy.

Matthew Fehrens
Matthew Fehrens

@Paul Steen -- Interesting thing I've also noticed is how the AGW crowd parrots the latest phrase or word EVERYWHERE.

'Global Warming'

No, let's switch to 'Climate Change'

Oops.  Switch now to 'Climate Disruption'

Other key phrases used by the zealots.

'Straw man'

'ad hominem'

'the ocean ate the heat'

'1,000 year storm'

'unprecedented'

'never before in the history of this planet'

There must be a website out there someplace that feeds you followers your daily dose of quotes and phrases.  I've been commenting on this topic for years and it's really remarkable how suddenly EVERYONE uses the same words and phrases at the same time.  

A year ago, I never saw anyone using the term "straw man".  Now I see it in every thread I'm on about AGW/ACC.   Fascinating.

Just another indication to me of how the AGW believers can't think for themselves and must be spoonfed everything they think, say and believe.

Sanjai Tripathi
Sanjai Tripathi

@Matthew Fehrens @John C. 


Nobody building models claims to have every short term variable modeled, but the long term trend is clearly for warming. It's warmer now, as predicted, than it was two and three decades ago.


Further, we've seen that despite an improbable string of La Nina years, which are known to gobble up heat from the atmosphere and send it to the deeper ocean (and whose apparently stochastic nature is the source of much of that un-modeled short term variability), we haven't had cooling. We've seen that top of atmosphere estimates of heat flux into the Earth hasn't dipped out of the positive range.


And if you don't understand what those words mean and why they are significant evidence for climate change, then you should consider whether you really understand the topic well enough to critique the actual experts' claims.

Matthew Fehrens
Matthew Fehrens

@John Patt @John C. -- The AGW fear mongering crowd has never been right in any of their predictions.  Every time Nature decides not to play along with their agenda, they switch up the playbook.

People are just getting tired of listening to the constant never-ending scare mongering and are tuning it out.  Only the diehard zealots still worship at the altars of Gore and Suzuki.  More rational people have seen this whole AGW agenda for what it is.  A massive hoax and a huge money-making scam.

Jessica Hubbs
Jessica Hubbs

I'll hazard a guess that you believe volcanoes put out more CO2 than cars. People DO affect the climate, 97% of climate scientists agree on that, the 3% that say otherwise are bought and paid for by big oil and conservative deniers.

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

Exactly my point. The Romans, obviously, did not use cars and the earth was warmer then that it is now. This is evidence that people do not affect climate change. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are agreeing with me that the earth has always experienced climate change. The only other possible interpretation of your comment is that you are an idiot.

Ollie G.
Ollie G.

@David Seabaugh  Climatologist Roy Spencer is a creationist that believes the theory holds more water than evolution. I wouldn't ascribe much value to his ideas, personally.


That said, he is one of the few AGW deniers with any credentials. Only he's funded by the Marshall institute.


Let me guess David - you're a caucasian male republican, probably a Christian too?



Ollie G.
Ollie G.

@David Seabaugh  says the man that ascribes more value to one creationists' theories (Roy Spencer) than the cohort of scientists that have all but proven AGW.

Matthew Fehrens
Matthew Fehrens

@Sanjai Tripathi@John C. And yet there are many scientists around the world who say we are now entering a 30  year period of global cooling due to lower solar activity.


Funny how now that that's come out, the AGW crowd is saying that warming or cooling, it doesn't matter.  It's all caused by global warming.


Moving the goal posts.

Matthew Fehrens
Matthew Fehrens

@Brian Howard  I would disagree with you on that.  Who are two famous people who are loaded thanks to their stance on AGW?  Al Gore and David Suzuki. 


The AGW scam is all about transfer of wealth, through carbon taxes, eco-fees, higher energy prices, etc. 


I've been a conservationist for 3 decades.  We are very conscientious in my home when it comes to waste of any sort.  I'd much rather see money going towards true conservation than this made-up stuff about how we can fix the climate with XXX amount of money.


It's not the rich who suffer from all of these schemes.  And they are usually the ones who are the least careful about waste.  It's the poor, the elderly, the disabled, anyone on a fixed income suffers at the hands of all of this GW scam.  


Climate change is real.  I don't think anyone disputes that.  The difference is that climate realists believe we need to learn to adapt and adjust our way of living.  Climate alarmists think the only way to cope is through money.

Brian Howard
Brian Howard expert

@Matthew FehrensThere's a lot more money on the other side of the argument: there is so much more money to be made ignoring climate change than trying to do something about it, so I don't see how that argument makes any sense. If someone is in it for the money they will certainly not be an environmentalist! Most of the ones I know don't have much money.

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