February 2, 2014

With climate change, will extreme weather become norm?

Polar vortex: now that is a new vocabulary phrase for many of us.

Also called a polar cyclone — the Huffington Post called it an Arctic aneurism — it is a counterclockwise mass of cold air extending tens of thousands of feet high into the atmosphere. (See NASA photo with tip of Florida visible in center.)

In early January 2014, about 186 million Americans were experiencing a severe cold spell because of this vortex. This air mass was so broad that virtually every state but Hawaii had a frost. More than 18,000 flights were canceled during that time.

New York City recorded 4 degrees F on Jan. 7, the coldest for that date in 117 years; two weeks before it recorded its warmest day, for that date, at 71.

The North Country experienced about a 50-degree swing in two days; this increased to a 67-degree temperature change in three days. It also rained when the temperature was 27. The week before, it rained on top of a foot of snow, when it was 21 degrees. The textbooks all say that water freezes at 32.

So what in the world is going on with the weather?

The air that we breathe today does not have the same composition as it did last year, or the year before, and is much different from when we drew our first breaths. The biggest change is in the heat-trapping gases now present at levels higher than at least the past 5 million years. All of the climate models say that with increasing levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs), we will get a warming and a changing climate, and more extreme weather events may become more common.

It’s not just the U.S. that is seeing these weather extremes. Lots of unusual and record-breaking weather is occurring all over the planet. (Look at the map of the United Kingdom reproduced here.)

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