Are you one of the millions of people affected by the Nor’easter hitting much of the east coast today? And are you wondering what the heck is happening? It’s March already. For my friends and family south of the border, this might seem odd for you. But for Canadians, a major winter storm in March is not uncommon. In fact, it has been known to snow in late May in Canada. Does that make you feel better? Probably not. But the big question that seems to be on people’s minds is whether or not this storm is related to global warming.
The short answer? No. I think we need to understand what global warming is, as there is a lot of mis-information out there. Global warming does not necessarily trigger a change in weather patterns. Changing weather patterns can result from other things prompted by global warming. Which probably doesn’t make sense. For example, the earth warms and it melts the Polar Ice Cap, which can cause further issues. But the warming of the planet itself does not cause the “further issues”.
Ok , let’s first talk about global warming. What is it exactly? According to Live Science, global warming is: “the gradual heating of Earth’s surface, oceans and atmosphere.” Literally meaning that the earth is heating up. But that in itself is not what’s causing these major storms. What is causing the storms is climate change. I know, I know. They sound like the same thing, but they’re not. The EPA describes climate change as: the broader set of changes that go along with global warming, including changes in weather patterns, the oceans, ice and snow, and ecosystems.
Climate change measures these effects over a longer term. Global warming itself only measures the physical temperature. The way I understand it is this: climate change = macro, global warming = micro. Which is confusing, right? Global warming is a result of climate change. Not necessarily the other way around. If climate change is looking at the bigger picture, why do we use the terms interchangeably? Because it’s a complicated and far too based in science to be understood by most people. I do, however, encourage you to learn more about climate change to really understand it.
Is there a connection between climate change and the weather? The EPA indicates that there are a lot of factors that go into determining a direct correlation between the two and we need to look at it in terms of what is “normal”. For example, are we experiencing extreme weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, major winter storms) more often? Are they lasting longer in duration? Are they more intense? And how late or early in the season are they occurring? For those of you experiencing today’s storm the last point is very important.
As far as winter storms go, the EPA suggests that there is a correlation between this type of storm and climate change, stating: “warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate into the air. If the temperature is still below freezing, this moisture-laden air can produce more intense precipitation in the form of unusually heavy snow, sleet, and freezing rain events, even in years when total snowfall is lower than average.” Having grown up centrally between three Great Lakes, I can attest to this. When it is colder, the lakes freeze, and we have “better” winters. Better, meaning fewer snow storms. When the lakes don’t freeze, we see more intense bursts of storms, but on average have a warmer winter.
And that is what has been happening in much of the United States. December and January were on average milder than in previous years. Many Canadians didn’t have a white Christmas. According to Climate Central, February saw, on average temperatures of at least 30º F warmer than normal. Growing up, I can remember more snow and more intense snow storms than we get now. And more snow days! Man, I miss those. But I think we are seeing fewer of these types of events. That’s not to say that they aren’t any less intense, but just that we might see 1 or 2 of these in a winter now. But 100 years ago, we might have seen this kind of snow fall over the course of two months. Perhaps, it’s the fact that it’s being dumped on us all in one fell swoop?
Even if you can’t wrap your brain around the difference between climate change and global warming, the fact remains that our weather patterns are changing. And it would seem, although I’m not a scientist, that there is a correlation between the weather patterns and climate change. I wonder if the bigger issue that we have with these types of weather patterns is not the fact that the storm is coming so late in may. But rather, the unpredictability of it all. Two weeks ago, the temperatures were in the 80s, and now they hover around the freezing mark. Stay warm and stay inside friends, until the storm blows over!