In the event you have not stepped outside in the last few weeks, let me tell you, it's been cold! Recently we experienced a 2-week severe cold snap that began during the last week of December and lasted through the first week of January. Real cold stuff, folks - like 20 degrees below normal (that is, usual) winter temperatures in some VA cities! Many places even saw a record cold start to the new year.
Despite these seemingly super cold moments, there are still persistent seasonal and annual warming trends that scientists observed after studying some long-term weather and climate data. Scientists with the World Weather Attribution group, along with several universities, have gone a step further: they analyzed extreme cold weather records dating back to 1880 and concluded that extreme cold weather events like this one have decreased in frequency and intensity in the last century.
After studying every cold wave on record in a large part of the northeast, they have concluded that cold snaps like the one we just experienced are 15x rarer now than they used to be AND cold waves are now 4°F warmer than they used to be a century ago.
What did the scientists figure out was causing this? Our changing climate.
The World Weather Attribution Group, along with a global scientific community, attributes these changing extremes to the amount of heat trapping gases being added to the atmosphere by human activities, such as electrical power generation from coal-fired power plants, removal of green spaces for cities and industrial agriculture, and our growing transportation needs, to list a few.
Some folks love the cold while others can't stand the chill in the air. Opinions aside, the changing climate is impacting our seasons and all the things that come along with them. A lot of people have been asking how could it be possible that we have a warming planet when we're still hitting such low temperatures for a couple weeks here in the winter. Well, it’s a question of scale – while it was super cold here, it was super hot in many other places on the Earth! While extreme lows do happen here occasionally, scientists are forecasting that these rare cold snaps will only continue to become warmer and less frequent!
Extreme weather events have always happened and will continue to take place even on a warmer planet, but scientists know that climate change makes extreme event frequency and intensity shift. Heat extremes get longer and more intense while cold extremes get milder and shorter. This report adds confidence in the climate science that has been essentially understood since the 1800s. Further proof that studying the data gives us a greater look into how the natural world around us works.
So, yes, it was cold, very very cold, but these extreme cold events are ultimately becoming rarer and warmer. This also serves a friendly reminder that studying climate data is really...wait for it...cool!