The cold truth of global warming.

Frozen Trees by Andrea L. Etzel

Over the couple frigid weeks I’ve seen more than a few comments on the Intertubes mocking “global warming” because of the unusually cold weather. A few on Facebook, some on Twitter, a few blogs, and even a Web comic I follow made a snarky global warming mock.

If the mockery is meant as an ironic joke, I tee-hee right along with it. 🙂 But I suspect that most, if not maybe all, of the comments I’ve seen have been meant as a sincere dig at the idea of global warming. (Interestingly, nearly every one has been by someone who appears to hold a “conservative” worldview. I have suspicions why, but for this post I’m only going to focus on science, not socio-politics.) And, naturally, when you have a concept called “global warming” and yet you’re in weather that freezes skin within minutes, it’s only natural to play with the apparent contradiction. But I think it’s important to understand why this is not a contradiction at all.

The most important thing to remember, (whether it’s in this case or other topics that involve complex trends, theories, or processes), is to not confuse a data point with the trend. That is: the particular weather in a particular area on a particular day, with the overall average climate for the entire planet over the course of decades. See the huge difference in these two things? The weather for, say, southwest Missouri, or even the entire middle America, for two weeks in 2010 is just one tiny data point in a trend for an entire planet over the course of 100 years. An extremely cold patch of weather does not disprove the concept of “global warming” (which is a subset of “global climate change”) any more than a very hot patch proves global warming! An unusually hot summer is also just a data point in the trend and should not be examined independently when a much larger trend is being investigated.

Another thing to note is that “global warming” is, while not exactly a misnomer as the globe is warming on average, misunderstood. As the globe warms up, glaciers and ice caps significantly melt, that actually cools down some areas of the ocean and changes the salinity and significant weather-affecting ocean currents. This can have an ironic result of colder averages for some areas. But more importantly, as average global temps increase, this causes more atmospheric humidity which has an effect of (and this is very important) colder and harsher winters in some areas (including ice storms in the U.S. Ozarks regions), stronger and longer storm periods (like tornado season in the U.S. Ozarks regions), and longer and stronger hurricanes on average. It’s easy to just focus on the term “global warming” and not realize that the implications of the concept are more complex and even counter-intuitive.

Some material to consider:

http://www.skeptic.com/the_magazine/featured_articles/v14n01_human_induced_climate_change.html

(…Note especially the last paragraph.)

http://www.skepticalscience.com/How-do-we-know-global-warming-is-still-happening.html

http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/global-warming-faq.html

Those are a little technical, these kind of simplify it down a bit and discuss the impact:

http://www.climatecentral.org/library/faqs/how_do_we_know_it_is_not_a_natural_cycle

http://m.discovermagazine.com/2009/jun/30-state-of-the-climate-and-science

I hope this helps somewhat in understanding what is meant by “global warming.” This is a perfect example of the metaphor “missing the forest for the trees.” Sometimes it’s hard to understand “the forest” when your experience is based on encountering single tree after single tree.