February 17, 2021

Is the Texas Cold Wave Caused By Global Warming?

 Texas and neighboring states are experiencing a major cold wave causing substantial snowfall and power outages affecting millions of people.

A number of major media outlets are making the claim that such cold is a "sign" or "indication" of global warming (see sample below)


Disturbingly, a few prominent public scientists are parroting these claims, suggesting that the cold waves are examples of "global weirding" caused by greenhouse warming.

Such claims are demonstrably untrue and can be easily proven to be untrue.

The facts are clear:
  • Global warming has been occurring and has preferentially warmed the Arctic, the source of cold air for North America.
  • The number of cold waves and cold temperature records have declined as the Earth has warmed.
  • Cold waves are the expressions of the natural variability of the atmosphere.
If global warming caused more cold waves, then we should be seeing more of them, since global warming is occurring.   We are not seeing more or stronger cold waves.  

 Consider this graph from U.S. EPA website showing the trend in cold waves from 1910 to now over the lower 48 states.  There are LESS cold waves.


Or a map of the changes in cold waves from 1948 to 2015.  Red downward arrows (reduced cold waves) are dominant across the U.S., particularly in the western U.S.  


Let's turn to Texas.  Here is a plot of minimum temperature for February for the entire state from a NOAA Climate website for the past 130 years.  The monthly minima are getting higher as the planet warms.  Less cold waves.


And finally what about records at individual stations?  Here is a plot of the lowest temperature each year at Dallas/Fort Worth over the past 50 years.  The lowest temperatures are rising as global warming occurs.

Image Courtesy of Climate Central


Rising minimum temperatures and DECREASED cold waves are the expected sign of global warming.  This is particularly true of the central and eastern U.S.

Why?  Because the source of the cold air in U.S. cold waves is the Arctic and the Arctic is warming more quickly as greenhouse gases warm the planet.  To show you this, here is plot of surface temperature change over the past 50 years.  The Arctic is warming more quickly than any other place, something duplicated by models and expected by physical reasoning (for example, that is where sea ice is melting most rapidly).


The cold air that plummets into the central North America comes from the Canadian Arctic, something you can see in the maps below that show temperatures at around 5000 ft. on Feb.11 and  Feb. 15.  The blue and purple areas are regions that are much colder than normal.




So a warming Arctic naturally leads to lesser cold waves.

Some individuals claiming that global warming causes more cold waves suggest that the cold waves are enhanced by a "lazy" jet stream, weakened by global warming.   But careful studies in the peer reviewed literature (e.g. this one) have debunked this idea.

What is most disturbing to me is that so many media outlets are headlining a claim that is so obviously wrong.  How can society make rational decisions when the public is being misinformed about such important matters?

The Seattle Times headline is wrong.








45 comments:

  1. Worse yet, some media outlets are linking the power problems in Texas on climate change. E.g. The NYtimes top story yesterday was "A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids".

    The current electricity problems are heavily linked to the free market setup in Texas, not climate change.

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    1. Interesting. I started to listen to that but stopped early on. It seems there's no back up power. NYTimes doesn't always get it right. They certainly have been saying global warming is contributing to the cold snap. Makes lots of sense, no? no. Doesn't make sense.

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    2. How are the outages heavily linked to the "free market"? I usually associate power shortages, and poor service in general, with a managed markets.

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    3. I think lack of regulations and more "free market" set up a situation where back-up power is limited. Needed for situations like this but no market reason to have invested in that-- and little financial gain for having suspenders with your proverbial power belt.

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    4. Johann, there are three electricity "grids" in the contiguous US states - Eastern, Western, ... and Texas. Since the Texas grid doesn't cross state lines, they're free from federal regulation. Regulation that includes winterizing of power plants to deal with once-a-century weather aberrations.

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    5. It's always going to be cheaper to let people freeze for a few days during a once every 50 years type event, than to invest millions in weatherizing your grid.

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  2. So- I'm not sure I understand: There seems to be an inconsistency. Your second illustration indicates milder winters in the West- fewer cold snaps than back East- which does jive with my general feeling (and the current plague of Mountain Pine Beatles- for which the dominant natural control, until the last 20 years, has been cold snaps). But your fifth illustration indicates that the East has been warmed more than the West. If this was balanced out by cooler summers in the West (smaller range) we would not have the increase in fires that we now see. The only way I can reconcile these is to assume that they imply that the averages have warmed more in the East but that the extremes are most affected in the West. Is this what the data say?

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  3. Could you write a piece about natural (weather) disaster frequency over time? It's definitely another topic which gets brought up with these similar headlines.

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  4. Michael Crichton summed it up in "State of Fear" - everything that happens,regardless of how counter-intuitive it may be, is caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere. Any explanation they can come up with, regardless of how thinly supported,is treated as fact by media. Heat, cold, hurricanes or lack thereof, is all caused by the same thing.

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    1. Interesting to see that book brought up in a science blog. If I recall correctly, the author implied that the world's climate scientists are engaged in a self-serving hoax. And the goal of the hoax is to preserve their funding. Personally, I found that an offensive, absurd, and paranoid idea. Crichton's premise smacked of conspiracy theory to me, and a disregard for facts, rather than keen insight into the world of science.

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    2. I don't think it requires a conspiracy. It's just a bunch of self-selected people who hold similar activist views that motivate them to overstate the consequences to get their prefered political outcomes. Global warming is not a hoax, but it is exaggerated by many scientists and the media are shameless in their gaslighting.

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  5. Seems like a strong argument for more solar and on-premises energy storage, barring any improvements to the grid (doubtful in TX, at least).

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  6. Nothing I've seen in the news or from political sources appears to be based on peer reviewed science.

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  7. Thank you for your relentless pursuit of the truth through science. There are plenty of climate deniers out there who need to be educated. But one doesn’t make things better by overstating the case and distorting the facts. Climate change is real enough without rhetoric making it worse. Claiming that the Texas event is caused by climate change is rhetoric that makes it worse.

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  8. The primary reason why the broader public is not listening to the so - called "experts" regarding climatology is their continued backflipping on every weather anomaly. A hot spell? Simple cause - AGW. Cold spell? Hey, AGW. Their desperation over the past two decades is overarching at this point, akin to an Alice in Wonderland perspective. Up is down, down is up, the Mad Hatter decries it so. When you have climate alarmists such as Al Gore raking in billions via selling his cable network to oil sheiks, then John Kerry using a private jet to attend a seriously important climate conference, it begs the question: I'll take their shrieking alarmism seriously when they actually start acting like it.

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  9. Makes one wonder what else does the media get wrong.....

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  10. Amen, Cliff. And, that’s ‘fewer’ cold waves. I live with an English major.

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  11. The Libertarian attitude that permeates Texas has turned around and bit Texans in the rear end....yup, they don't want no govmint interference in their lives!...oops!

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  12. Interesting data. It would be interesting to see these data with 2021 included. I note the big peak of coldness in the middle 70s. I remember this in the midwest, having several years of extreme cold and much higher snowfall than normal. Also, in Texas-- ice storms, and strangely, no extreme power outages, e.g. rolling blackouts. I see hand waving about a few weeks of extreme cold being paradoxically a product of warming (!?).

    Real climate change is hard for the average person to grasp, because all most can see is today's weather and their company's current cash flow.

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  13. Is there any relationship between the warming of the troposphere in the artic region and the possibility of more dramatic tempertaure rises in the stratosphere above the artic? If so, could these more dramatic temperature rises in the stratosphere above the artic result in more intense splits in the ploar vortex?

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  14. I would be most interested to see the scientific proof for your statement "as greenhouse gases warm the planet."

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  15. Media doesn't care about facts. Just headlines that sell. It's a for profit entity like anything else. The sooner people realize and accept this, the better. I'm not sure what the solution is though, as outside of individual blogs/sites, I'm not seeing much unbiased reporting on a large scale.

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  16. I "heard" once that Alaska and the polar region in general used to be abundant with crocodiles and tropical flora. Wouldn't this fly in the face of this argument as a whole?

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  17. Lots of pearl clutching going on with this. Its funny when this happens in California, half the country (especially in the middle sections of the USA) pretty much says "Suffer! You brought this on yourselves! God is punishing you for being Californians!". Now the shoe is on the other foot and apparently its required to be sympathetic. I admit to being a bit cold and that I should get some sensitivity training but these are self inflicted wounds. First off, more demand than supply is just that. Laws of economics and science don't care if its climate change or power being needless squandered or inefficiently distributed. Other states have also been pleading for restraint on power use. Basics we listened to ad nauseam in the 1970s such as turning the lights off and leave the thermostat at the lowest range for comfort. As in set it at 65-68 and put on a sweater or an extra blanket on the bed.

    Many want more coal plants built since local generation is king and apparently the renewable sources are taking a vast amount of blame. Coal plants take time to build, but will Texas put a moratorium on growth until then? Nope. Even when they are built, its still burning coal. A morally questionable cost/benefit analysis is in play.

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  18. This article seems to commit the same rush to judgment that it condemns. You could cite just as many 'peer reviewed' articles that draw a link between Arctic warming and mid-latitude extremes. While you say that a 2013 article has "debunked" the connection, one of the most recent peer-reviewed articles to cite that article ("Divergent consensuses on Arctic amplification influence on midlatitude severe winter weather") shows that this connection has been anything but debunked. Why mislead your readers? Why not give a more adequate account of the uncertainty on this issue? How can society make rational decisions when the public is being misinformed about such important matters? To cite the closing lines of that 2020 peer-review article: "The present lack of certainty may frustrate policymakers and the general public, but science often advances slowly on issues with great complexity and large variability."

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    1. Well the problem here is that the burden of proof is on those who claim that extreme weather is increasing. The effects are small against background variability so signal detection is difficult. I personally don't think the effect is real just based on simple thermodynamics. Temperature gradients drive weather. As the planet warms equator to pole temperature gradients will decrease quite a bit. That means that mid latitude weather will become less extreme. I also doubt that hurricanes will become more intense for the same reason. Vertical temperature gradients in the tropical atmosphere do not seem to be increasing much, contrary to the moist adiabat climate theory.

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  19. I'm wondering, why you say the Ice is melting in the artic areas, because of warming. But I have to ask myself is this region getting more of the suns energy and thus the heat becoming trap...

    Then I have to wonder why the Co2 would be higher in these regions, than in other regions on earth and what would be causing this.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but we have polar ice caps due to the suns inability to heat these regions due to the angle that the suns ray hit these regions...

    Kind of like the ozone holes that were at one time was all the fad. As I understand it the ozone layer is created by the suns rays striking our atmosphere and reacting with it. These ozone holes tend to form in these regions due to the angles and lack of the suns energy effecting the atmosphere in these regions...

    Many thoughts here but you covered a lot of stuff also.

    Thanks

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  20. I’ve been impressed by Washington posts coverage of this event (see excerpt below). It seems like the science is unsettled at this point and it would be hard to claim either effect or no-effect from global warming at this point:

    Because this sudden stratospheric warming event is so intense, there’s a greater chance it will affect the polar vortex, but the precise connections between the stratosphere and troposphere are still not well understood. For example, a relatively strong stratospheric warming event last winter never knocked the polar vortex off-kilter, Cohen noted.

    Sudden stratospheric warming events happen about six times per decade on average, but this event is unusually intense.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2021/01/05/polar-vortex-split-cold-snow/

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  21. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

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  22. Cliff, what exactly went catawhampus with La Niña this year? The hard hit areas, such as the South, usually are supposed to get off easy during La Niña. Yes, just because it is this set weather pattern doesn't preclude that cold outbreak chances go to zero but this is freakish and it seems lots got caught off guard. There is going to be enough blame passed around to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing when this is all said and done and lots of fingers/legal scrutiny will be pointed at climate science/meteorology.

    Hopefully you guys have some vats of midnight oil at the ready to burn over the next month or so in order to come up with some kind of retrospective.

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  23. Folks climate change is a religion, with myths, fantasies, and faith. It's political nirvana - "It's coming and only we can save you." Imagine only electric cars by 2030, and so what if you can't heat your house.

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  24. I can't find the article(s), but I thought previously you indicated that increased jet stream modulation could be potentially linked to climate change, and thus more extreme hot/cold north/south variations.

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  25. There are two camps on Artic Oscillation and cold waves. I would suggest a more recent reference could be added to the 2013 paper you reference: Blakport and Screen (2020) respond in an earlier paper by the cold wave increase group (Cohen and others, 2020) - links below.
    It seems we may not yet have a good handle on AO causes either natural or otherwise.
    While Cliff is responding to media coverage that in some cases overplays the cold wave theory, the media is also responding to the climate warming denier noise every time it gets cold by pointing out there could be a link to Artic warming. It might be better to say that while there could be link to warming, cold waves have happened in the past and at this point in time there is no reason to believe they will come to an end just because we are undergoing global warming. Note that Guardian article does have a caveat by Jennifer Francis "There is no consensus among scientists over the interaction between Arctic heat and cold weather further south – Francis calls the topic an “active area of research”.
    A final mote on your media commentary -- it is a bit blanket and broad. There have been articles and radio coverage that has done a pretty good job. You might serve your purpose better by giving kudos to those outlets that do a good job.
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-00954-y?utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=commission_junction&utm_campaign=3_nsn6445_deeplink_PID100045715&utm_content=deeplink
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0662-y.epdf?sharing_token=iEKpvnSojGgNGxkKUPpsK9RgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0MYzE9Z0SoI_C-IWctwpzcphVYlt_VgSw6DPVdu0yE6niiCfvgDlklnoTqU2GMLFLC78jM8nlOxJ4Dj8othJNWyUwtjlK0czpsIhhsPmRiu9KMs_O8Z32UPNlGkJB0Fx32A6zmvqemQgdxxoOYuAHqDzqTPhwF4Haypiiy5q__SCQ%3D%3D&tracking_referrer=www.vox.com

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  26. OK: How about some sunshine? We usually get a week of it in February. My crocuses are waiting.

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  27. I’m curious on your thoughts of Polar Vortex displacement and splitting. It seems like these are being talked about quite a bit. What’s your take?

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  28. NWS data at Love Field shows a temperature of 3 deg. on the 16th. why didn't you show this year?

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  29. Glenn Greenwald has an excellent article on the subject of deliberate media misinformation, although the topic is different:
    "The False and Exaggerated Claims Still Being Spread About the Capitol Riot
    Insisting on factual accuracy does not make one an apologist for the protesters. False reporting is never justified, especially to inflate threat and fear levels."
    All the public ever wants is truthful reporting. We deserve to know the truth when it can be found.

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  30. Guess what else contributed to the power blackouts in TX? The windmills that received $$ in taxpayer subsidies all froze up. Useless in an emergency. But hey, Green Power!

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    1. Wind Turbines work fine in Minnesota, they didn’t prepare them in Texas.

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    2. Both wind and solar produced at above expected/planned levels during the freeze. Coal, nuclear, and particularly natural gas all failed spectacularly. Natural gas was pulled away from generation facilities due to homes using it for heating. Texas has almost no storage facilities for natural gas so increased demand needed to be served by increased well production. Well heads froze from the water content in the gas, making them lose production capacity. Nuclear and coal generators were not winterized and tripped out as well. Had Texas been 100% green power, they actually would have come through this just fine.

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  31. While I don't always agree with you, I appreciate your commitment to science and your willingness to share your knowledge. I am not a scientist, but based on what I have read about this storm (articles citing other climate and weather scientists), it seems like you are doing something very similar to what you are criticizing here: making too strong of a claim, not acknowledging the other side of the scientific debate. I don't have a problem with that in cases where the "other side" are not representative of informed scientific opinion, but as far as I can tell that is not the case here. For example, this article from the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/feb/17/arctic-heating-winter-storms-climate-change) cites scientists on the topic who, based on their research, believe it is plausible that this event was in part due to climate change. The article does also acknowledge that the science is not settled on this topic: "There is no consensus among scientists over the interaction between Arctic heat and cold weather further south – Francis calls the topic an 'active area of research'."

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  32. While Cliff an I have disagreed at times on his crusade to hold the media's feet to the fire on everything related to AGW (because sometimes I feel the noise feeds the right's fantasy based narratives), I can't understand why there is so much chatter about climate change around an event that, while extreme, is not unprecedented.

    So on this one, I'm definitely in Cliff's camp, and will remain there unless a climate change Ph.D. can show me definitive evidence that this isn't natural variability. I cannot see any rational reason that folks are blaming this event on climate change, and I also don't buy the narrative that these events will become more common. Even if a weakened polar vortex was to lead to more cold waves, would they be stronger than in the past? I simply can't reconcile that with a warming arctic. Thus, I've got to wonder what else the media is getting wrong. The crazies on the right are easy to spot. But in the mainstream the impact is more insidious. We expect that the mainstream media is fact checking, but apparently agenda or a good headline is more important. It's always been true that you shouldn't believe everything you see/hear in the media, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone other than experts to sift through truth and fiction. That is DEEPLY disturbing for the prospects for an informed democracy.

    As a case in point of how clamoring to blame every weather event on climate change can backfire, I'm involved in trying to show that warming climate is reducing the amount of fossil generation needed to get through winter peaks. The loonies pushing the idea that AGW will result in more cold waves just made my job a whole lot more difficult. So media...please, please think and fact check multiple sources before blaming everything on climate change.

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  33. Thank you for telling it like it is and sticking with unbiased facts, an approach that seems to be getting ever more rare. Even Science News magazine, for decades a reliable source of information for general readers, is being invaded by political correctness and progressive ideology. I haven't cancelled my subscription, though--at least not yet! As for KNKX, I listened to KPLU for many years but have now mostly switched to KOMO for news because I find the KNKX bias so irritating. (KUOW does not have a strong signal where I live.)

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  34. Interesting discussion and my big observation is that these weather and energy grid systems are much too complex for reaching simple “headline” conclusions about the cause and effect of extreme events. For me the data presented here causes more questions than answers but I do agree with the point about the cold snap in Texas not being being supported by climate change predictions. A particular question I have is from looking at the time series info for cold events in the US and Texas. Just by eyeball analysis is appears that the trend is up for the mean temps but frequency of cold events does not seem to be increasing over the past 100 yrs. However I do see other “waves” in the data that I would like to understand better. For example, why does it seem like there is a 20 yr period of colder extremes then about 20 yrs of less cold extremes in Texas. The Data from 1905 to about 1925 then from 1945 to 1965 then from 1985 to 2005 seems to show slightly higher minimums in Texas but across the nation the portion of the country with unusually cold temps seems to be greater for those same wave periods. Recognizing there is certainly some impacts from CO2 emissions driven temp changes it would be interesting to hear about how different climate cycles might be interacting and how every now and then they line up and give us an unusual event like the past week.

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  35. Interesting discussion and my big observation is that these weather and energy grid systems are much too complex for reaching simple “headline” conclusions about the cause and effect of extreme events. For me the data presented here causes more questions than answers but I do agree with the point about the cold snap in Texas not being being supported by climate change predictions. A particular question I have is from looking at the time series info for cold events in the US and Texas. Just by eyeball analysis is appears that the trend is up for the mean temps but frequency of cold events does not seem to be increasing over the past 100 yrs. However I do see other “waves” in the data that I would like to understand better. For example, why does it seem like there is a 20 yr period of colder extremes then about 20 yrs of less cold extremes in Texas. The Data from 1905 to about 1925 then from 1945 to 1965 then from 1985 to 2005 seems to show slightly higher minimums in Texas but across the nation the portion of the country with unusually cold temps seems to be greater for those same wave periods. Recognizing there is certainly some impacts from CO2 emissions driven temp changes it would be interesting to hear about how different climate cycles might be interacting and how every now and then they line up and give us an unusual event like the past week.

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