Is Global Warming Responsible For Freezing Temperatures?

The country is freezing in an unprecedented fashion, and global warming is to blame. Sound crazy? The cold snap that North America is experiencing east of the rocky mountains, with temperatures at Arctic-like levels, is real, but it’s only part of the story. Simultaneously, there are record warm temperatures happening in other parts of the world, from Australia to the actual Arctic.

While a small but vocal minority of people might use the faulty logic of, “it’s cold where I am, therefore global warming isn’t real,” even schoolchildren know that weather isn’t climate. But these extreme cold snaps have gotten more severe in recent years, due to a combination of global warming and a phenomenon you’ve likely heard of: the polar vortex. Here’s the science of how it works, and why global warming is paradoxically playing a major role in today’s record-low temperatures.

Polar Vortex

The difference between a strong, stable polar vortex (L) and a weak, unstable one that can cause cold snaps and extremely cold weather across the mid-latitudes (R), such as the event we’re experiencing now.NOAA

When you think about the Earth, including its weather, climate, and temperature, what picture do you get in your head?

The best way to picture Earth is as a sphere rotating on its axis, but with two additional effects: the atmosphere and the oceans. As the Earth rotates on its axis, we experience warming during the day (in direct sunlight) and cooling at night (in the dark), as the Earth radiates its stored heat away into the depths of space. When our hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun, we experience summer months; when our hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, we experience winter months.

The ocean stores tremendous amounts of heat, with ocean currents transporting that heat from one location to another. But in terms of these particular weather events we’re experiencing right now, the atmosphere is the biggest factor.

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