Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Don't Mess with the Polar Vortex - The Midwest Arctic Outbreak and Climate Change

Tuesday, January 7, 2014
12:14 a.m.

I don't know how many of you watched the Packers-49ers game on Sunday, but it looked absolutely frigid. The grass was brown. The surface temperature was 3 or 4 degrees. Green Bay actually got down to -18 that day, which is a record. That'll freeze cheese. 

My cousin Colleen showed me this article from the New Yorker. The New Yorker is known for its rigorous fact checking, but these guys are stretching the truth in this article. Or at least dancing around it. Since it is brief, I've simply pasted it below.


JANUARY 6, 2014


MINNEAPOLIS (The Borowitz Report)—The so-called polar vortex caused hundreds of injuries across the Midwest today, as people who said “so much for global warming” and similar comments were punched in the face.

Authorities in several states said that residents who had made ignorant comments erroneously citing the brutally cold temperatures as proof that climate change did not exist were reporting a sharp increase in injuries to the face and head regions.
In an emergency room in St. Paul, Harland Dorrinson, forty-one, was waiting to be treated for bruising to the facial area after he made a crack about how the below-freezing temperatures meant that climate-change activists were full of shit.
“I’d just finished saying it and boom, out of nowhere someone punched me in the face,” he said. “This polar vortex is really dangerous.”
The meteorology professor Davis Logsdon, of the University Minnesota, issued a safety warning to residents of the states hammered by the historic low temperatures: “If you are living within the range of the polar vortex and you have something idiotic to say about climate change, do not leave your house.”
Now, do polar vortexes specifically seek out climate change deniers? We're not sure at this point, but our preliminary guesses are that they do not. One of the atmospheric science TAs for my class on thermodynamics is currently doing his doctoral dissertation on the subject, and those have been his findings thus far. However, he still has more research to do, and things may well change before it is all said and done.

But it is true. There is a large debate in the general population (NOT in the scientific community) about this being a global warming issue or not. The global warming deniers say "By Jove, this is cold. And you are telling me we are supposed to warm? You must be crazy." Meanwhile, the global warming alarmists are saying "This is yet another example of an extreme weather event caused by global warming."

And again and again, just like we've gone over before many times on this blog, neither side is correct.

I've generally found that the media swarms over one specific event as being evidence of global warming, like Hurricane Sandy, the Joplin tornado, and the 2004 White Christmas in New Orleans (yes, that actually happened). I'll get back to this global warming mumbo-jumbo momentarily. But now, let's define what actually injured those global warming deniers.

So, what is a polar vortex?

Polar vortexes are these massive (1000-2000 km in diameter) and persistent cyclones near Earth's poles and are in the mid-to-upper levels of the troposphere and stratosphere. They are not, as the New Yorker article insinuates, the snow version of a dust devil (I get a very funny image in my mind of some global warming denier... say, Dick Lindzen, a meteorology professor at MIT... getting whacked by one of these fellas). When these vortices are strong, the Westerlies increase in strength and zonal flow predominates, but when they weaken, the jet stream tends to buckle and that is when you can get significant cold outbreaks in the winter.

Here's what the 500mb height pattern looked like during that frigid game at Lambeau Field Sunday. This is a view from the North Pole, so you can see the entire Northern Hemisphere. Typically, there are two polar vortex centers, one over Baffin Island and one over Northeast Siberia. You can clearly see the one by Baffin Island and the one over Siberia, and it also looks like there are some other ones over the Pacific and Atlantic. And of course, there's the massive one plunging down into the plains that ended up injuring all those global warming deniers.

Valid 04:00 pm PST, Sun 05 Jan 2014: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/~ovens/wxloop.cgi?npole_h500+/-168//

See how "wavy" the jet stream is? We have this longwave ridge over our area, while there is a longwave trough over the eastern half of the country. In a situation with strong polar vortices, these waves are gone. Check this out.

Valid 04:00 am PST, Mon 13 Jan 2014 - 156hr Fcst: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/~ovens/wxloop.cgi?npole_h500+/-168//
Here the Baffin Island vortex has migrated slightly west (it's not in a penitentiary, it's allowed to move from time to time) and strengthened, and look at how much more zonal the flow across the the Pacific and North America has become. This zonal flow will finally direct some precipitation into the region, and Snoqualmie Pass should FINALLY get enough snow to open in the next week. Alpental needs more snow to open to cover all the gnarly terrain and probably won't quite pick up enough. It's too early to tell right now, but if this pattern holds, Alpental should eventually be able to open too.

Meanwhile, where's that Siberian vortex? Definitely not over Siberia. It is pretty weak as well. Consequently, the area "under its domain" is dominated by ridging and troughing.

So now you all know all there is to know about polar vortices. Give yourselves a high five.

Anyway, let's get back to those deniers vs. alarmists. The deniers say that this cold wave proves that global warming is obviously not occurring. The response I would have for one of these deniers is that this is not a global cold wave. Southern California was basking in the 70s. When you have these polar vortices dropping south and you have significant troughing and ridging, temperatures generally depart far from average depending on which side of the jet stream you are on.


Besides, if global warming is not occurring, why is the Cascade snowpack well below average? Why are we getting rain at the passes instead of snow? Also, if you think things are bad here, look at Oregon and California. Take home lesson - while some places just experienced extreme cold, much of the West is warm and very dry with very little mountain snowpack.

The alarmists talk about this being an example of another "extreme event" and cite global warming as causing more extreme heat AND cold waves. Here's where I read some of Cliff Mass' blog and took some notes, and I think what he found pretty much obliterates this argument. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) said that "there is likely to be a decline in the frequency of cold air outbreaks (i.e., periods of extreme cold lasting from several days to over a week) in NH winter in most areas." It says nothing about the intensity of the cold waves, only the frequency of them.

The diagram below is from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). The blue bars represents the percentage of the country covered by extreme low minimum temperatures. You can see that we are seeing less and less blue, which means the cold waves, as a whole, are likely becoming less extensive. 

The strength of these outbreaks, however, is largely unchanged. Cliff has another diagram for that, and I'm going to refrain from stealing it, because that is a immoral thing to do (even though I just did it above). I highly recommend that you read his blog post on the latest arctic outbreak.

If only people understood atmospheric science the way I do! OK, that sounded really egotistical, and compared to nearly everybody in the department, I hardly know anything about atmospheric science, but at least I understand that if you are going to attempt to make a conclusion about global warming based on one event (which is a bad idea in and of itself), you gotta do some research.

Neither side did their research, and the deniers hobbled away with some hefty injuries. What's the lesson here?

I say it's better to be an alarmist because if the world was full of alarmists, we'd try to accomplish something, but you don't want to be either. Being an alarmist is like "crying wolf" and spreading misconceptions and fear throughout the population about global warming, and in the long run, this will only hurt our efforts as mankind to mitigate it. On the other hand, most (not all) of the deniers I've heard of are cocky people who don't pay attention to the overwhelming amount of scientific data that supports global warming and just decide to go with the stuff they find.

You want to avoid both of these traps, and you don't have to be a scientist to do so. By now, many of the regular readers of this blog have probably developed an intuitive sense of what alarmism is and how it differs from the truth, and of course denial is easy to sort out. But most of all, DON'T PIN AN INDIVIDUAL EVENT ON GLOBAL WARMING. Climate change is about, you guessed it, climate. If we get 20 more of these things in the next five years, we should be concerned. But comparing singular events to climate is like comparing Beethoven to Bieber. Just don't do it.

Well, that's all for now! Thanks for reading. On a happy note, we should start seeing some snow start to pile up in the Cascades. I'll write that up for ya'll tomorrow. :)


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