What’s Behind the Cold Snaps and Does Climate Change Have Anything to Do With Them?

Sean Breslin
Published: January 15, 2018

A woman walks through the snow the morning after a winter storm on Jan. 5, 2018 in Boston.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Brutal cold. Feet of snow. Warm-weather animals paralyzed in frigid temperatures.

Global warming?

The topic is oft-discussed during summer heat waves, but some experts believe the impacts of climate change may be just as prevalent during the colder months. Conversely, a recent Climate Central study concluded cold snaps are happening less frequently and are not as intense over the last 100 years.

"This past cold wave was especially noticeable because it occurred earlier than usual in the season, and right in the midst of the holidays," said Bob Henson, weather and climate blogger at Weather Underground and author of The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change.

(MORE: It's Still Fall in This Spot, and That's Bad News)

Deepti Singh, a Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory post-doctoral fellow who studies the human impact on climate change, told Columbia University's Earth Institute that the western U.S. is warming faster than the East, and it could be causing the configuration of the jet stream to become more extreme. Thus, the jet stream could more frequently surge further north in the West and dip in the East, which allows such cold blasts to occur in the winter.

Past studies have also suggested climate change's impact on the jet stream is allowing extreme weather to persist even longer. The recent arctic blast is a perfect example, Singh noted.

The East has seen a similar pattern in four of the last five winters. Last year was the lone exception, as the pattern flipped and the West experienced cold weather and feet upon feet of snow at the higher elevations. According to a study published recently in the journal Nature Communications, the jet stream's big fluctuations could be leading to more extreme weather in Europe and North America.

"Heat waves, droughts and floods affect people," Valerie Trouet, a biologist and author of the study, told NPR. "(These) happen on top of already increasing temperatures and global warming – it's a double whammy."

As for these brutal winter cold snaps, some climate scientists are finding more signs to suggest climate change isn't just a summer problem – it could also mean winter isn't going to be less intense, at least in parts of North America. Still, more studies need to be performed to determine if this is fact, or if we're trending in the opposite direction.

"There's a strong link between climate change and higher temperatures overall," said Henson. "However, the evidence has been more mixed when it comes to cold outbreaks in the eastern U.S., with some intriguing studies on either side of the fence. The Midwest and Northeast have seen some brutal cold and snow in recent winters, but we've also had record-shattering mild periods such as mid-March 2012 and late December 2015.

"There were even record highs in the Northeast right after this year-end cold spell," added Henson. "We need more research on exactly how winter is evolving across North America and how climate change intersects with natural variability."


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