The polar vortex climate conundrum

It either disproves climate change or is caused by it--say what?

As the freezing winds triggered by the “polar vortex” continue their blistering ascent through the midwest and across the eastern seaboard, Rush Limbaugh took to his radio show to drive home a point about the global warming. The record-breaking lows, Limbaugh said, were a sign that global warming warnings were overstated and that the “polar vortex” was simply a confusing diversionary tactic created by the liberal media.

Do you know what the polar vortex is? Have you ever heard of it? Well, they just created it for this week….Other wackos are saying it’s a great example of climate change, but regardless, the agenda is that we’re responsible, we’re causing it, we have to pay the price. And so any weather extreme now is said to be man-made, and therefore it fulfills the leftist agenda on this.

The decree that unusually cool temperatures prove that climate change isn’t happening was echoed not only by a slew of anchors on Fox News, but by so many others that MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has dubbed winter the season of “snow trolling.” (In the New Yorker Andy Borowitz mocked the trend with a piece titled, “Polar Vortex Causes Hundreds of Injuries As People Making Snide Remarks About Climate Change Are Punched in the Face.”)

A flurry of explainers countering the argument that a single instance of extreme cold challenges an overall pattern of warming have popped up at and Media Matters. “Using this event to try to disprove global warming is the height of anti-scientific crackpottery,” wrote Bad Astronomy columnist Phil Plait at Slate. “You might as well say that the existence of night disproves sunlight. ”

The team at Climate Central explains it differently, arguing that the polar vortex might even be propelled by climate change—a view staffers discussed on multiple television newscasts Tuesday, with writer Andrew Freedman on PBS NewsHour and The Weather Channel’s Wake Up with Al and meteorologist Bernadette Woods-Placky appearing on MSNBC’s Lean Forward. In a Climate Central post, Freedman explains the vortex as the function of a weak inertia—a “slowly spinning top” that, once it slows and topples, allows the contained chill to expand. He cites several studies suggesting that altering the proportion of heat between the North Pole and equator—say, by melting ice caps, rising surface temperatures, and other effects of global warming—the hefty current of these Arctic winds might make such vortex collapses more likely.

Freedman wrote that a body of research suggests that current global warming-induced changes correlate with an increased rate of such leakage:

“A study in September that found this Arctic paradox pattern has become common in years with low fall sea ice cover and rapidly advancing fall snow cover across parts of Asia, and that there is a likely link between the trends. The paper found the pattern was observed during the winter of 2012-2013, following the lowest fall sea ice extent on record in September 2012.

The Arctic has had a mild winter so far, in part because of an area of high pressure in the North Pacific Ocean that has blocked the flow of weather systems like a stop sign at an intersection, forcing the jet stream northward over western Canada, and then back down to the southeast across the U.S.

A few outlets covered the climate angle tentatively, with Al Jazeera America running a
reported piece
on the climate change-linking confusion and The Guardian covering the science outlined in Climate Central with a post, “US Polar Vortex May Be Example of Global Warming.” The New York Times included a heavily caveated climate change reference in its polar vortex coverage; “the decline in Arctic sea ice in particular, may play a role,” said a climate researcher. “But most researchers say there is not enough data to conclude that anything other than normal climate variability is involved,” the post continued.

Linking any individual weather event with climate change—especially one as rare as the polar vortex— is a difficult numbers game, and such heavy caveats and tentative assertions like the ones in the Times are appropriate for the situation. As Freedman wrote at the end of his post: “The state of the science on the links between Arctic warming and weather extremes in the midlatitudes can be likened to a court case. Scientists have gathered reams of mainly circumstantial evidence to prove a suspect’s guilt, or in this case, the existence of an Arctic warming link. But such evidence, which comes in the form of published studies in peer reviewed scientific journals, may not be enough to convince a jury quite yet.”

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , , ,