On Valentine’s Day weekend, temperatures plummeted across Texas, crashing an unprepared power grid and leaving millions without electricity or safe water. The freeze brought ice and snow to areas that rarely receive any of either, while yet another frigid tempest approached other areas of the country. As droves dealt with the devastation, a question rose to the minds of many: what happened to global warming? The answer - this may well have been part of it.


First, it is important to understand the difference between weather and climate. While the former is the present state outside, the latter is the large-scale pattern of weather over many years, hence the term climate change. In other words, one frigid storm in an area does not contradict trends of overall warming across the entire planet. On the contrary, the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration (NOAA) reports that temperature increase in the past decades defies the global climate of the last 1,000 years.


Furthermore, it seems that Arctic warming is linked to extreme weather patterns in the mid-latitudes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that approximately 0.15 million square acres of Arctic sea ice melts per decade (around twice the size of Nevada), while the Northeast saw four times the number of major winter storms from 2008 to 2018. Why would a melting Arctic cause more drastic snow storms?


There are several reasons. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, increasing precipitation in storms. Additionally, when clouds form from the vapor, they release heat - fueling storms. When explaining this extremism of weather, dubbed the “warm-Arctic/cold-continents pattern,” atmospheric scientist and professor Katharine Hayhoe described it as “global weirding.”


Another factor, still under study, is the polar vortex, a region of cold air and low pressure around the north and south poles. The warming of the Arctic changes the behavior of this vortex, in turn affecting the polar jet stream, a fast-flowing air current formed along the boundary between the polar vortex and the warmer air mass covering most of the United States. The changing behavior of this vortex causes more extreme oscillations of the jet stream, spilling frigid Arctic air into the mid-latitudes.


Climate science, like any other science, is a constantly developing field: much research is still underway. “Scientists are still hashing out all of this.” remarked John Schwartz, a Times reporter that specializes in climate research; “particulars, such as whether climate change will cause us to see more frequent blasts from the polar vortex, are still being debated. And that’s as it should be.” 


As research develops, keeping up with new discoveries can help to answer questions about climate change. It appears that the winter storm in Texas will not be the last instance of unusual weather as temperatures rise. Though much remains unknown, it is clear that the effects of climate change remain very much at hand in our area.