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Climate Change and Snow (video)
February 25, 2003

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Interviewees: Linda Mearns and Robert Harriss, National Center for Atmospheric Research; Andrew Dobson, Princeton University.

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Everyone seems to have been talking about the weather in the past few days. But what have scientists thought, especially those whose business it is to look at the issue of climate change?

As this ScienCentral News video reports, when looking at the big picture, this week’s weather doesn’t change anything.

Climate change and weather

If you were one of the people who had to deal with record-breaking snowfall that buried the eastern United States over the President’s Day weekend, you might have wondered just how all this might fit in with the issue of global climate change.

The answer, according to climatologists who study the issue, is that very little, if anything about climate change can be read into a single storm, or even a year’s worth of weather.

Linda Mearns, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), says, “I think the kind of snowstorm we’re seeing in the east—there’s nothing inconsistent about that kind of storm and a progressive warming of the climate.”

Also, when you talk about weather in one place, it might not match the weather elsewhere. For example, the western part of the United States is experiencing the latest in a series of drought years. The President’s Day storm dumped more snow on many parts of the east coast than had fallen on Denver during the entire winter up to that time. The day Washington D.C. was digging out of snow, The Denver Post carried stories speculating about upcoming summertime water restrictions.

While 2003 threatens to be especially dry in the west, previous dry years are also contributing to the situation. Is several years worth of weather a sign of climate change?

Many climatologists, while watching the dry weather, know that the drought is important, but are still hesitant to point to even a number of years of unusual weather as climate change.

Robert Harriss, Director of the Environmental and Societal Impact Group at NCAR, says, “The droughts that we're experiencing over the last decade, certainly in my opinion, still fall in the category of climate variability. There is the possibility that this is some emerging impact of climate change, but we haven't been able to come up with a convincing argument for it to be climate change.”

But some scientists look at the storm as a good test for the computers and the programs used to forecast climate change. Professor Andrew P. Dobson of Princeton University, who has published extensively on the impact of climate change on disease, looked at the warnings that preceded the storm as validation for the computerized models. “The models that were used to predict that snowfall were exactly the same models that are used to predict climate change,” he points out. “So, if you believe there’s snow on the east coast, and [you] adjusted your airline travel accordingly, then you should also believe in global warming because it’s essentially the same underlying process.”

He also notes that “99.9 percent” of scientists worldwide now agree that the planet is undergoing some sort of climate change. Additionally, in 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change linked human activity—most notably, “the use of fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers”—to climate change.

This does not mean that the scientific community is unanimous about the details involving climate change, something Mearns called the “uncertainty factor.” But she urged people to not discount the general findings, just because the scientific community is unable at this time to pin down specific temperature changes, exact dates, and detailed impacts.

by Jack Penland

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