Global warming is supposed to raise the Earth’s average temperature, leading to warmer weather all around, right?
Well, actually, it’s not so straightforward…
While scientists have been warning us for decades that the copious amounts of greenhouse gases that we have been pumping into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution will cause a spike in global temperatures, the commonly raised consequences of melting ice sheets, rising sea levels and more severe droughts are only part of the story.
This is not to say that climate scientists are wrong… it’s just that something as complex as planet’s climate is very hard to predict even a few days down the line, let alone dozens or even hundreds of years into the future. While paleo-climatologists (scientists who study the weather and climate of the past) can provide a vague roadmap of what the future may hold, based on the weather events of the past, our picture of what man-made climate change will do our planet is still rather fuzzy.
As a result, there are competing theories on what global warming will do to our weather locally. One line of thought (which is the one that most of us are familiar with) is that a reduction in the world’s snow and ice cover will simply lead to shorter and milder winters. However, another line of thought argues that since global warming interferes with the jet stream (which helps confine frigid air to the poles), we can actually expect Arctic air to escape the usual boundaries of the polar vortex more often, and travel further south than usual.
Image source: UNFCC
This second scenario, combined with a generally weaker jet stream due to the current cycle of the Arctic Oscillation, is what seems to have caused the devasting bought of cold weather that has gripped the US as far south as Texas. While the more northerly states and the Canadian provinces are used to these kinds of extreme weather events during the winter months (as they fall more frequently within the boundaries of the polar vortex), states further to the south were caught unprepared, with deadly consequences.
So, is the current devastation in Texas a sign of things to come? Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, seems to think so. In a 2018 paper, Ms Francis and her colleagues warned that warmer temperatures in the Arctic will lead to the US having to deal with more frequent and more extreme cold snaps. But, exactly how often such weather events will occur is still being debated.
What is clear, however, is that regardless of what the future holds, the vast majority of us are not prepared for the extreme temperature swings that a warming planet will bring. Texans were hit with a triple whammy of a lack of insulation in their homes (as the state generally has very mild winters), an unprepared power grid that quickly became overwhelmed when people tried to keep their houses warm, and the bursting of water pipes. Some of these problems, such as the unpreparedness of the power grid, were caused by deliberate decisions taken at the state level. Others, such as the lack of insulation in homes, are a result of complacency, stemming from a misguided belief that the future will look exactly the same as the past. The continued denial of man-made climate change does not help matters either.
If we are to weather whatever the Earth’s changing climate has in store for us, then action needs to be taken at all levels to not only scale back greenhouse gas emissions and invest in climate-friendly sources of energy, but to also provide citizens with adequate protection from the effects of extreme weather events. Whether it is providing subsidies to homeowners to help cover the cost of installing insulation and more energy efficient doors and windows, updating building codes to require new homes to be more climate resilient, or ensuring that people can access insurance pay-outs to cover damage to their properties caused by severe weather, lawmakers and politicians need to take proactive steps so that we are ready for the next bout of extreme weather.