Over the past couple days, many of us in the Midwest have been hunkering down and bundling up as we’ve been walloped by a “polar vortex”, a mass of arctic air which dipped unusually far southward and brought with it temperatures in the -20s (and wind-chills in the -60s!). Young people from Minnesota to Illinois to Michigan experienced a level of cold they had never felt before; in locations throughout the upper Midwest, the thermometers have not dropped so low in over a generation.
Along with the actual vortex, however, came a front of tweets and social media posts claiming that the deep freeze was proof (proof!) that climate change was a fraud. Of course, posts like these reveal much more about their authors than they do about climate change. If such declarations are proof of anything, it is that their posters either lack a basic understanding of what climate change means or else are being deliberately misleading. Nothing about the theory of climate change suggests that the Midwest (or anywhere else) can’t receive a spell of cold, even record-breaking, weather.
Often ignored or misunderstood by those calling foul on climate change is the key distinction between climate and weather. NOAA’s website does an excellent job outlining this distinction, “Whereas weather refers to short-term changes in the atmosphere, climate describes what the weather is like over a long period of time in a specific area.” Whether includes your day-to-day phenomenon – your daily, hourly or even minutely changes in temperature, precipitation, wind speed, wind direction, barometric pressure and more. Climate refers to the general, long-term characteristics of a region.
For example, you might describe California’s Death Valley’s climate as very dry and extremely hot; that doesn’t mean that it never rains in Death Valley, it just means that, on average over time, Death Valley has experiences high temperatures and low rates of precipitation. Accordingly, a rainy day in Death Valley wouldn’t prompt us to reclassify the area’s climate, it would, rather, be considered unusual or rare weather event. If, on the other hand, Death Valley started experiencing much more rain for months or years, then we’d have to think about reclassifying its climate.
When we zooming out to a global scale, we find that a cold couple of days in the Midwest tells us bupkis about the general trends of the Earth’s climate. The polar vortex is a weather event (and it is one that, due to climate change’s disruptive impact on the polar jet stream, might actually become more likely as the planet heats up). When we look at long-term, global data, we see a much clearer picture of where the climate is heading. Global average temperatures have been steadily rising for over a century, and the five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2010, and climate scientists predict continued and accelerating warming to the tune of at least several degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.
This bigger picture might be tough to focus on for those of us currently freezing our tuchuses off, but we should try to not let the weather – and erroneous tweets about the weather – distract us.