Field of Science


When We Talk about Snow

"Excuse me," the man next to me on the train said mildly, turning in his seat. "Do you remember what you did in the snow?"


"They say it was exactly this day last year that we had all that snow," he said. "So I was wondering, what did you do? Were you working? Did you go home early?" The man was middle-aged, with pale eyes that weren't quite right. He clutched a dirty bag in his lap with both hands.

"Um. They sent us home early, yeah."

"I wish I had a better memory," he said, smiling regretfully.

"You don't remember what you did?"

"About nine o'clock at night," he said, "I remember, I went to go check out the snow. I walked a block or two down the street, but then I saw all those big, huge snow drifts. And I thought, well...if something happened, there was no one around to pull me out, you know?"

Chicagoans called that February 2011 storm the Snowpocalypse. The snow came down furiously all evening. Muffled cracks of thunder sounded from high inside the blizzard. On the highway that runs the city's length, the whiteout slowed traffic to a stop, then froze it in place. Commuters were stranded overnight and had to be rescued by firefighters.

"I wonder," the man on the red line continued, "if you could ask everyone what their ideal snow is, what they would say. Like maybe somebody says, I'd like half an inch of snow between nine and nine-thirty, and that's it!"

"I like a lot of snow," I offered. "But I don't have a car."

"I like a lot of snow, too," he said. We both looked out the window at the gray cityscape, snowless in a 40-degree February.

Chicago isn't the only place experiencing a weirdly temperate winter. Most of the United States has had a warm and dry couple of months. Meteorologist Jeff Masters says that an extremely out-of-the-ordinary jet stream is to blame. Warm air from the Southwest is being pushed across the rest of the Lower 48.

That's funny; I remember when forecasters were telling us this winter would be "another brutal one." But weather is chaotic and hard to predict. That's why climate change models can't tell us for sure whether this freakish year is our fault. Would this one warm streak have happened without our influence, or is it part of the larger pattern of global warming?

Our fault or not, it's hard to talk about this year's unwinter without thinking of climate change. It's not impossible, though. The L.A. Times ran a whole article about the warm weather ("If you looked at U.S. temperatures, you'd say, 'Wow, it was a warm winter,'" says a quoted expert) without once mentioning the climate.

The Wall Street Journal, rather than similarly ignoring climate change in the face of a balmy winter, published an opinion piece called "No Need to Panic about Global Warming." The letter was signed by "sixteen concerned scientists," including at least one (named Claude Allegre) who is also not panicked about asbestos causing cancer.

Previously, the Wall Street Journal had rejected a similar but opposite piece, on why we do need to be concerned about climate change, signed by 255 scientists. Science magazine published that letter, which you can read here. And the Wall Street Journal itself published a rebuttal to the original op-ed. (I won't rehash any of those arguments here, but you can check out my toolkit for talking to climate change deniers.) Unfortunately, when misinformation oozes into the mainstream, it's notoriously sticky to clean up. Rebuttals and corrections can't erase what people have already seen and believed.

You might notice that several signatories of the original Wall Street Journal piece are meteorologists. This is a group especially resistant to the idea of climate change: a 2010 study found that fewer than a third of TV weathercasters believe humans are causing global warming. It may be a problem of seeing the forest through the snow-covered trees. When broadcasters are doing their reporting from the middle of a blizzard, it must be hard to imagine that the world is getting hotter.

I chatted with a man in the Raleigh-Durham airport who looked to be around retirement age. He was an engineer traveling to Chicago for an enormous meeting of people in the heating and cooling businesses. I told him I edit a children's science magazine.

"So you write about the environment? Climate and stuff?" he asked.

"Sure we do," I said. I asked if global warming was a major topic at a conference like this one.

"Well," he said. "I don't know about that warming."

Then he described to me some of the big issues in his industry, such as benefits companies can receive by meeting certain energy standards. "Reducing the carbon footprint of buildings, that's huge," he said.

"If you're talking about reducing carbon footprints," I pointed out cautiously, "that's because of climate change."

"Oh. Sure, I guess," he said. The connection didn't seem to have occurred to him.

Maybe it's impossible right now to show everyone the big picture, the snowless woods behind those icy branches. In our country, climate change has been made into a political issue, rather than an issue of living on the planet. But if people are willing to accept smaller practicalities--tax credits, efficiency requirements, gas prices, different cars on the road--then it might not matter how they perceive the big picture. If the guy in the airport is lowering people's carbon emissions, it makes no difference to a polar bear that he's also reading the Wall Street Journal.

And once people notice the snow is gone, maybe then we'll be able to talk about it.

Photos: by me.


  1. In South Jersey we are looking forward to possibly having one inch of snow this evening.

  2. My problem with seeing this as our fault is that it implies we have some sort of power. And the real fact is, we don't. Yes, we pollute. Yes, it's probably having an impact. But getting 7 billion people to agree and work together on stopping our pollution seems iffy to me. Now, if we admit that the climate changes, and it IS changing . . and if we admit we don't really know what we can do to stop that, maybe we will adapt. I mean, suppose we made an effort to re-design our cities to take climate change into account. Warmer, colder . . . we design for whatever comes along. And we build the cities for humans, not cars. With housing and retail and manufacturing in easy walking distance . . so we can let go of some of the billions of cars we have that are polluting. Improve mass transit. Use solar and wind power where we can. Build vertical farms to grow most of our food locally, cutting out a lot of the shipping of food out of season and making more exotic stuff a local commodity.

    I really think that almost everyone can agree, based on millions of years of evidence, that the climate is probably changing. If we can't agree on what is causing it, that is not a big issue unless we make it an issue. Just knowing it's changing . . .agreeing that it's changing . . and looking for answer together should be good enough for now. (And it doesn't hurt that my ideas would cut down on a lot of pollutants that could be associated with some local warming.

  3. A breakthrough in early 2011 was Wenhong Li et al's work on tracking the North Atlantic Subtropical High (NASH) also known as the Bermuda High. They found that the increases in North Atlantic ocean surface temperature were correlated to a re-location of weather patterns inland, and affected drought in the Southeast. That research links changing climate to shifts in weather patterns. We don't seem to have the same level of prediction for the jet stream.

    I wouldn't be surprised if the winter ended with some kind of a bang. It might even be rain if it's not cold enough for something else. Rain tends to produce flooding when plants are still dormant and can't soak it up. The infamous snowstorm of 1966 in the Northeast was preceded by a mild winter. The March 1993 storm was a punch line to winter, too.

    Joan Savage


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