No, the Polar Vortex Does Not Disprove Global Warming

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Jan. 8 2014 7:30 AM

No, the Polar Vortex Does Not Disprove Global Warming

north polar vortex
GOES weather satellite image showing the North Polar Vortex sweeping down from the Arctic, covering much of the continental United States. Click to enbrrrrrernate.

Photo by NOAA/NASA GOES Project

The picture above, taken on Jan. 6, 2014, by the NOAA’s GOES East weather satellite, shows what a big chunk of the U.S. knows all too well: the southern migration of part of the North Polar Vortex, which has dropped incredibly brutal cold temperatures into the mid-latitudes.

Scientifically speaking, a vortex is a spinning flow in a fluid. In this case, it’s a region of low pressure usually more-or-less centered over the North Pole, causing a circulation of air around it. It’s strongest in the winter, but the normal wiggles in its boundary will sometimes dip south.


This week, though, it’s slammed down with a vengeance, bringing bitterly cold polar air with it.

Blowing Cold and Hot Air

Oh, the anti-science claims rise from the dead over and again.

Anton Brand/Shutterstock

It’s also brought an onslaught of outright and outrageous anti-science. Some climate-change deniers have apparently decided that the only way to combat the vortex is to blow a vast amount of hot air, actually using this cold snap to argue against global warming.

Let’s be clear: As Chris Mooney wrote here on Slate, winter does not disprove global warming. Yes, the temperatures are cold here in the U.S., but most of Europe is doing just fine. And while deniers chatter about the cold weather, they forget about the adjective “global”: Australia—where it’s summer—is having a massive heat wave, with some temperatures peaking over 50 C (125 F). In fact, 2013 was the hottest year on record in Australia, with temperature records broken all over the continent.

And nothing the deniers say about the polar vortex and frigid temps does anything to change the overwhelming evidence that the world is, on average, warming up, and we're the cause.

In fact, it’s even possible that this event is due to global warming. Climate scientists are still working on this idea, but warming in the Arctic is melting ice and creating more surface area of water. This is darker than ice, so this open water absorbs more heat from the Sun, which can affect the way air moves in the troposphere and stratosphere. It’s possible this in turn affects the vortex, causing the boundaries to weaken, dropping cold air south. As usual, it’s difficult to pin any given weather event on the changing climate (we do sometimes see dips in the vortex, though usually not this severe). Still, as the climate does change, we’ll see more extreme weather events.

Using this event to try to disprove global warming is the height of anti-scientific crackpottery. You might as well say that the existence of night disproves sunlight. Actually, no one put it better than Justine, aka @NerdyJewishGirl on Twitter (who apparently got it from Reddit):

But of course, that hasn’t stopped the deniers.

Bloviators Gonna Bloviate

The usual suspects are out in force. Donald Trump took to Twitter to trumpet his ignorance about global warming, once again showing the planet that an ability to make money doesn’t mean you have any understanding of science. Or reality. Again, see Mooney's article for details on why Trump is wrong.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Rush Limbaugh went so far as to claim the term “North Polar Vortex” was made up by the left and the media to promote the hoax of global warming. I guess he’s too busy spinning conspiracy theories to use Google (climatologist Peter Gleick also shows the term has been around for decades). Incidentally, we see a polar vortex on Saturn and its moon Titan as well. Maybe they're hoaxes, too.

Fox News, of course, was right at the maelstrom’s heart. They’ve had show after show featuring pundit after pundit claiming global warming is dead. Do I even have to say that weather is not climate? As the saying goes, climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. Saying a cold snap disproves global warming is ridiculous.

After all, every now and again Fox News pundits get something right, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t gigantic tools of anti-science.

Media Matters has a nice post debunking this dumbosity. But perhaps I should leave this to Jon Stewart at The Daily Show, who—as usual—beautifully dismantles the asininery spewing from Fox. Some NSFW imagery, and Not Safe For Your Sanity claims.

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