If only global warming were as simple as that term implies. Temperatures would increase at a steady rate around the globe, winters would become milder, snow less common. The only victims would be ski slopes and polar bears.
But climate change—the preferred term for our global phenomenon—is messier. All that extra energy trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases interacts with natural cycles and events to produce an array of effects, often contradictory to our logical minds. Sure, there are droughts and higher temperatures in some places. But others get more precipitation, including more snow in the winter, or more violent storms. Big snowstorms like the one that just blazed across the United States or dumped tons of snow on the East Coast last year may actually be indicative of climate change in action, not proof it doesn't exist.
Although the atmosphere is warming, that doesn’t mean snowstorms will stop anytime soon, Charles Rice, a Kansas State University professor and climate change author .
That’s because the warmer air means more moisture, in the short term at least.
“Climate change doesn’t mean you are not going to have cold spells and snow,” Rice said Tuesday. “It’s a change in the weather pattern, the intensity of a weather event — all those come into play.”
Right now, climate change during winters in the United States appears to be playing itself out as a series of intense, though infrequent, snowstorms. That may change, though, as we continue to dump carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and intensify the situation. At some point, average temperatures may rise so high that Chicago's winters are marked more by downpours than blizzards.
The unpredictability of climate change is one of its scarier aspects. Scientists know that certain events will become more common—severe droughts and floods, intense storms that rage across the landscape, heat waves that kill—but they can't predict when or where other than in the most general terms. That lack of specificity almost makes the reluctance to see the ongoing climate change understandable. But as the Midwest and New England dig themselves out from their latest storm and Queensland Australia dries out from after its flooding and Tropical Cyclone Yasi, we're reminded that our world seems to be behaving more strangely than usual, and perhaps we should do something before it changes beyond recognition.