Last week we all heard about the Polar Vortex, most of us for the first time, when temperatures plunged to well below normal in many locations. How can there be global warming if it’s so cold all of a sudden was heard in certain quarters. At times the discussion got painfully silly as when Rush Limbaugh asserted that the term polar vortex was a left-wing fabrication, newly concocted for the week’s weather headlines. Al Roker put him in his place by showing one of his meteorology textbooks on national television replete with its definition of said vortex and paying special note to the book’s copyright from the late 1950s. But the thrum of anti-knowledge voices kept the scientists on their toes, and we got lots of good, concise explanations for the deep-freeze of early 2014. The chief meteorologist for the Washington Post described the phenomenon and cautioned against mistaking any single weather event as evidence of any climate development. Stephen Holden, the President’s Chief Science Advisor, made a two-minute video that was only slightly wonky and came with cool animations.The upshot is that the temperature extremes between the polar regions and middle latitudes (where the continental United States is located) used to be what held the jet streams in place. As the North Pole warms rapidly, the bands of intense wind at high altitudes that formed the boundaries between major air masses and kept the cold in place over the Arctic, are weakening. There is less delineation between the regions due to warming, so the arctic air is not held in place as effectively. Warmer Arctic leads to wobbly jet stream, leads to people in Atlanta asking national reporters sent to cover the cold snap where they got their nice, heavy coats and how could they get one too.
While we froze and became entirely too familiar with the location of power outlets in hard-floored airports, Europe was caught in a weird nether world of not-too-cold, but not warm- enough-to-make-it-fun weather pattern. It was warmish and rainy. It turns out that only a tiny percent of the globe experienced below average temperatures during these last two weeks. South America and Australia experienced record high temperatures that strained power grids to the breaking point, stunned residents, hurt businesses and surprised meteorologists. The same week that saw us freezing, it reached 122 degrees in Australia. And a blocking high that shielded densely populated areas in southern Australia has moved out leaving triple digit temperatures and health warnings in its wake. Kangaroos are fainting and an estimated 100,000 bats have been killed by the heat and are falling from the trees in a plague-like shower. These temperature and weather extremes aren’t just inconvenient and a dramatic topic of conversation, they result in worldwide property damage in the billions of dollars. And businesses suffer commensurate losses of revenue. And animals starve and perish. And people die.
Weather fluctuations are nothing new. And, yes, it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere and winter north of the Equator. Some places we expect to be colder and others warmer. No news there. And a freaky winter or summer does not a climate trend make. As Dr. Holden said in his video, and as anyone who’s actually paying even a little bit of attention these days knows, climate is made up of long term patterns. But an increasing number of extreme weather events over a period of years, at an accelerating rate, is something to be reckoned with. It’s worth a serious discussion that entails learning something new about our planet from time to time.