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A 'Perfect Storm': Extreme Winter Weather, Bitter Cold, and Climate Change

World-renowned climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann explains why the bitter cold and snowy conditions gripping the US are “an example of precisely the sort of extreme winter weather we expect because of climate change.

The US East Coast is experiencing an “old-fashioned” winter, with plenty of cold weather and some heavy snowfall in certain places. Listening to climate contrarians , you might think this constitutes the death knell for concern over human-caused climate change.

Yet, what we were witnessing play out is in fact very much consistent with our expectations of the response of weather dynamics to human-caused climate change.

Let’s start with the in Erie, Pennsylvania, in late December. Does this disprove global warming? “Exactly the opposite,” , Dr. Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. 

Global warming is leading to later freeze-up of the Great Lakes and warmer lake temperatures. It is the collision of cold Arctic air with relatively warm unfrozen lake water in early winter that causes lake effect snows in the first place. The warmer those lake temperatures, the more moisture in the air, and the greater potential for lake effect snows. Not surprisingly, we see a long-term increase in lake effect snowfalls as temperatures have warmed during the last century (see figure below).

How about those frigid low temperatures back east this winter? Surely that extreme cold must disprove global warming?

Once again, the claim is misguided. While we have seen for a smattering of locations in the US, these pale in comparison with the number of all-time highs we’ve seen over the past year. In fact, the record highs have outpaced the record lows 61 to seven, i.e. nine times more often (), consistent with what we expect to see as the globe continues to warm.

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