Cold snaps will persist even with global warming, experts say

A pedestrian makes his way through the snow with his dog in south Fargo on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. 
David Samson / The Forum
A pedestrian makes his way through the snow with his dog in south Fargo on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. David Samson / The Forum

GRAND FORKS — Several Midwestern states logged record-breaking low temperatures this week, but climate experts say the overall global temperature still is on the rise.

Parts of Minnesota and North Dakota saw temperatures well below minus 30 this week, and nearby states even logged multiple weather-related deaths, USA Today reported Thursday.

“What the hell is going on with global (warming)?” President Donald Trump asked on Twitter Monday evening. “Please come back fast, we need you!”

A number of Americans have likely posed similar questions. But as the Midwest endured a brutal cold snap, things were heating up in other parts of the world. Australia, for instance, is in the midst of its hottest summer on record, said Michael Poellot, chair of the University of North Dakota’s atmospheric sciences department.

“When we talk about global warming, we’re talking about an average over the entire globe, not just the temperatures in a certain region,” he said.

Although global temperatures have risen in the past, the difference this time around is the rate at which it’s occurring, Poellot noted.

“It’s occurring more rapidly than it was back in, say, the end of the ice age or something like that, where the change was more gradual,” he said.

Poellot also was quick to point out the key difference between weather and climate: Weather refers to the state of the atmosphere at a specific time, while climate is the average of weather conditions over a longer period of time. As a result, it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from isolated weather incidents, he said.

“There’s a big difference between climate and weather,” he said, comparing the difference between the two to differences between a person’s mood and personality. An otherwise pleasant person might experience a bout of anger, for instance, but that doesn’t define their overall personality.

Some climate experts quoted in national publications have even linked extreme weather patterns to changes caused by global warming. But Poellot and his colleague Mark Askelson were hesitant to make that connection.

“We just have to be careful not to confuse individual events with average conditions,” said Askelson, an atmospheric sciences professor at UND. “It’s not easy to trace back and say we have that weather event because of climate change.”

Still, climate change could bring about an increased frequency of extreme weather conditions, Poellot noted.

“If you have an overall change in the number of, say, cold snaps or heat waves, that is more likely attributable to a climate change,” he said.

In any case, cold weather conditions will still continue even as the overall global temperature increases.

“Just because we have a cold snap does not mean we don’t have global warming,” Poellot said.

“Even with global warming, we’re still going to have cold snaps.”