The Cold Snap Wasn’t Actually That Extreme, Global Warming Has Just Made Us Wimpy

The recent cold snap wouldn’t have been so unusual in the past

01_10_2014_chicago polar vortex.jpg
The Chicago skyline during the polar vortex. Edward Stojakovic

It is so cold out. Cars won't start; there's snow everywhere; people in the South had temperatures in the single digits. People in the Midwest scoffed at Southeners, saying they don't even know what cold means. People on the West Coast laughed because the polar vortex that was the source of the rest of our misery dodged them completely.

This cold sucks.

Seth Borenstein, the Associated Press' science reporter, has had enough of our whining. Meteorologists are annoyed with us, too, he says, especially those of us who, either snarkily or seriously, whined: “Where's our global warming nowwww?”

The cold snap that gripped the nation, says Borenstein, wasn't even that cold. It's just that, thanks to climate change, we're now so used to above-average temperatures that one little blip of a return to what used to be known as “winter” has us all riled up.

As the world warms, the United States is getting fewer bitter cold spells like the one that gripped much of the nation this week. So when a deep freeze strikes, scientists say, it seems more unprecedented than it really is.

Sure, the cold temperatures brought on by the polar vortex are among the coldest in nearly two decades. In the two decades before that, though, we got cold snaps like this a dozen times. And in the past century and a bit, we got similar chills 27 times. "Many climate scientists say Americans are weather weenies who forgot what a truly cold winter is like," says Borenstein.

"I think that people's memory about climate is really terrible," Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler wrote in an email. "So I think this cold event feels more extreme than it actually is because we're just not used to really cold winters anymore."

And, anyway, it's about to warm up. New York's looking at temperatures in the 50s on Saturday; Toronto could have a balmy winter high of 43 degrees F.

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