Seth in snow

Image courtesy of Terry Tindol

An Inconvenient Chill, Again

By R. Alan Clanton | Saturday, January 4, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

“I could punch Al Gore in the face,” a friend said to me recently, “because this global warming thing is getting ridiculous!” In the event that some member of his Secret Service or security entourage reads this, she was joking of course. Besides, I met Mr. Gore briefly, twice actually, in 1990 and again in 1991 in Tallahassee, and he seems a likeable, affable sort. I would want the responsibility of neither his broken nose nor my friend’s stint in a federal facility.

But, her point was well-taken, at least on the issue of the cold, which I inferred through her jabbing sarcasm.

Indeed, each year—for what seems like seven or eight years in a row—our winters in North America seem to get worse, with unusually heavy storms of snow, ice and sleet, or some combination of all three. The winters in Europe haven’t been much better, with average winter-month temperatures declining for a five-year period for an area covering two dozen countries. Just weeks ago there was snow for the first time in generations in parts of the Middle East.

Each year (every year it seems), somewhere along in January or February, we watch television as the handsome faces of Scott Pelley or Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer roll out a carpet of superlatives: recording-breaking cold snap; history-making snowfall; blizzard-of-the-century; massive winter storm. Remember the massive blizzards of 2010? There was record snowfall in places like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore.

On CNN, Fox News and the Weather Channel, experts point to huge maps. Jet streams are identified. Unprecedented conditions are blamed. This thing moves this way, and some other big thing slides up to meet it. El Nino. La Nina. No matter. Yo tengo frio!

Then, the images start: people with shovels digging out from under snow so thick it has broken every record on the books; utility crews working around the clock to restore power to people in multi-state areas; photos and video of more ice hanging from rooftops, tree limbs and cable TV wires than all the frozen water of the last Ice Age; record numbers of people seeking shelter in local facilities.

This week North Americans have watched as their usually chilly January turned (again) into something baffling and nasty—a blast of air so cold that the typical wintery conditions are more like those found in the arctic reaches of Canada or Alaska. Areas just north of Boston experienced their heaviest snowfall in decades. Dozens of towns in Vermont and New Hampshire broke their all-time records for low temperatures this week, and it will get even colder in a few days.

The problem, according to some meteorologists, is that an unusual jet stream pattern is sending a lot of ice cold air directly from above the Arctic Circle right into North America, with virtually nothing to filter it or mediate it. The name of this condition is "Polar Vortex." It’s like a huge wind tunnel connecting the North Pole to the upper Midwest and the Plains States, or so we have been told.

And to make matters worse, the moderating force most commonly associated each season with mitigating this blast of arctic air—the balmy Gulf Coast waters and breezes—have taken the month of January off. That means no tropical weather systems to push back against all that air coming down that pipeline from Santa’s front yard. No weekly surge of warm air moseying up from Jamaica or the Yucatan toward New Orleans or Biloxi or Panama City, anything to offer a little mellowing to the mix.

On social media for two or three days we’ve seen hundreds of folks posting images of the snow in their yards, on their streets and sidewalks, or piled up in drifts along their roads and highways. Well, it could get a lot worse, and it could set an all-time record this month (again). In fact, North Americans have not seen this much cold, spread out over so many states and provinces, since the late 1960s (again).

Even Miley Cyrus, whose recession-factored wardrobe budget has been cleverly minimized this past year, was forced to reconsider appearing naked in her televised appearance at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Instead she wore what looked like a polar bear refitted to match Napoléon’s coronation robes from 1804.

Yes, it’s cold out there.

Much of the media expect us to possess only short-term memories. That means we are supposed to forget some of those great scientific prognostications set forth in the 1960s, 70s and even well into the early 80s—many of them by highly reputable names and iconic faces, like Carl Sagan—that predicted a general cooling period for the next hundred years or more…as a direct result of (are you ready for this?) greenhouse gases, humankind’s carbon footprint, and industrial development—most especially the internal combustion engine car.

I recall clearly those grim warnings of an impending, man-made ice age, and because I am a hoarder like few others, I still have some of those copies of Scientific American, National Geographic and Omni. The articles were written by people with lots of two and three-letter combinations of academic initials after their names, and most of them had at least a PhD. Those magazines are in mint condition (yes, I’m a hoarder, but I’m a hoarder with OCD), and every few years I come across those glossy pages stored neatly in boxes. I can sit and read those predictions, and my nipples get instantly hard from the bone-chilling thought of that big ice sheet in my back yard.

The upside to all that ice and snow? No more gasoline-powered lawn mower. No more electric hedge trimmer. You see? I could instantly reduce my carbon footprint.

But that was then. This is now. Which means it will snow on my parade every time. To make sure we all understand that this annual business of “record-breaking cold” and “unheard-of levels of snowfall” are kept in context, we are reminded that all this chilliness does not negate the realities of Global Warming. The planet is getting warmer, fast. Just look at all that new beach-front property springing up in Macon, Georgia and Tombstone, Arizona.

A few months back, astute weather fans will recall, world-wide climate gurus and weather experts finally conceded what some scientists had already been saying: the world’s air temperature has, in fact, NOT been rising steadily. In fact, median air temperatures have been holding steady for 16 years or more. Instead, we were told just weeks ago, it’s really been the Earth’s water temperature that’s been on the rise, but measurably only for about six to eight years. And this, we are told, explains why many glaciers and ice sheets have melted and receded.

When this observational logic is employed, global warming proponents often say...well...that such is the difference between “weather” and “climate.” Maybe so, but it’s also fair to say that there is a difference in the terms “movie” and “film,” for the first term is used by the general rabble who stand in lines for popcorn, Milk Duds and Will Smith, and the second by the literati who know the difference between Godard and Gielgud. In other words, just because you understand the weather, doesn’t mean you understand climate.

I know, I know. But what about that Russian research ship with its crew of British, Canadian and American pranksters stranded in miles and miles of impenetrable…umm…ice? What about those multiple “ice-breaker” ships, state-of-the-art (we were told), who themselves got stuck, or had to retreat? Some oceanographers and scientists now concede that the ice content of the oceans, especially near the polar regions, has grown—inexplicably—over the last three or four years; this, after a decade of seeing those photos from Alaska and Russia showing glacial retreat and open water where thick ice once existed.

I know, I know. This is all what scientists and climate change experts call “anecdotal” evidence. Ignore that man behind the curtain. The Earth is getting hotter, and you can bet the farm (and all that frozen livestock) on that bankable central fact. Nobody likes being called a “denier” of scientific facts.

Still, try explaining that to the folks in Minneapolis or Fargo or Chicago—sturdy Midwesterners who are no slouches when it comes to the chill—who will be experiencing lows ranging from a brisk 31 below zero to a more balmy 14 below—and chill factors dipping down to 60 below. The high temperature in Chicago on Sunday: 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Even colder in Green Bay, and perfect for a rugged NFL playoff game.

Well, forget those folks who live in any location that’s a day-trip drive from Canada. Montgomery, Alabama: 25 tonight, and a prediction of 13 by Tuesday. Atlanta, Georgia: 30 tonight, and as low as 5 on Monday. Tampa, Florida: a balmy 60 tonight, but a brisker 34 on Monday (a possible record-breaker among the record-breakers).  My friends around the Bay will have to put on their socks.

But since this is all anecdotal, I will sell neither my Briggs & Stratton lawnmower nor my Black & Decker weed trimmer just yet. There will be plenty of time for things to get hot, again.