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Cold Weather Doesn’t Mean Climate Change Isn’t Happening | The Weather Channel – Articles from The Weather Channel | – The Weather Channel

A fiery pileup involving semitrailer tractors shut down both sides of Interstate 44, the Turner Turnpike, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on Sunday, February 14, 2021. (Twittter/@OKTurnpike)

A fiery pileup involving semitrailer tractors shut down both sides of Interstate 44, the Turner Turnpike, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on Sunday, February 14, 2021. (Twittter/@OKTurnpike)

  • Increasing global average temperatures are well documented.
  • Long-term trends are what matter when tracking climate change.
  • A bout of cold weather doesn’t cancel out decades of warmer temperatures.

With temperatures dropping to record lows this week, a parade of winter storms marching across the country and some areas seeing their biggest snowfall in years, it might seem like global warming has left the building.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

But how can all this wicked winter weather be happening if climate change is real?

The answer lies in 140 years of climate data, not tomorrow’s forecast.

“When we talk about weather, we’re simply talking about what occurs on a daily basis, what do you see outside your window right now. However, when we talk about climate, climate is the average weather that we get over a long period of time,” Kevin Petty, director of science and forecast operations for The Weather Company, an IBM company, said in an interview Friday. “And when people are referring to climate change, they’re referring to how those averages are going to change over a long period of time.”

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Increasing average global temperatures are well documented since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It’s also well documented that the rate of warming is speeding up. The seven warmest years on record have all occurred since 2014, according to NOAA, and the 10 warmest since 2005.

The last decade was the warmest ever recorded, and 2020 ranked among the warmest years.

There’s no sign of that slowing down, even in winter. January 2021 marked the 45th consecutive January and 433rd consecutive month with temperatures higher than the 20th century average.

It’s important to remember that those averages are a reflection of global trends – not just what’s happening in one town, state, nation or continent.


“There should not be this expectation that there is an equal change in the patterns that we see all over the globe. That’s not going to be the case,” Petty said. “There is going to be variability from one region of the world to the next.”

(MORE: Landslide Cooled Off Waters Warmed By Marine Heat Wave, Scientist Says)

And while one area might experience extreme temperature trends over time, another might only see slight changes.

“Record highs might be that much hotter,” Bob Henson, a contributing writer at Yale Climate Connections and the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change,” said in an interview Friday. “By the same token you can still have extreme cold, and maybe just a slight bit warmer on average.”

Those record highs are happening more often, too. Between 1900 and 1980, a new temperature record was set every 13.5 years on average, according to NOAA. By last year, that had increased to once every 3 years.

Record lows and record highs can happen at the same time, in the same parts of the planet or in far flung locations. This week, while places like Omaha, Oklahoma City and Dallas could see record lows, much of the globe will be above normal. Tampa could tie or beat its record daily high. Greenland will be 10 to 15 degrees above average.

While temperatures are the focus this week, they’re just one part of the overall story. Climate change impacts everything from drought to wildfires to sea level rise to flooding and beyond. Scientists say it will drive even worse extreme weather in the future.

The bottom line in all this? Short-term bouts of cold don’t cancel out decades of warmer temperatures.

“It’s been described as the weather is the clothes you wear on a given day, and the climate is the wardrobe. You may need more t-shirts in your wardrobe, but you’re still going to need a parka,” Henson said.

“Climate change is never going to erase the day to day vagaries of weather.”

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.