WASHINGTON - When the 2004 film
"The Day After Tomorrow" depicted the northern United States buried
under tens of feet of snow following an abrupt change in global climate
patterns, it cemented the association in the public consciousness
between climate change and extreme weather events.
While the three feet or
so of snowfall in Washington and throughout the mid-Atlantic U.S. coast
this past week was a far cry from the tidal waves and walls of ice that
haunted Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid in the science-fiction
thriller, it has nonetheless been an exceptional event – and one that
has ground the capital to an extended standstill.
Washingtonians finally dug Friday to brave clogged metro trains and icy
roads on the way to the office, one of the lasting impacts of the past
week is the discussions it has provoked about how climate change has
impacted the current weather - and how this weather might impact the
ongoing debate here over how the U.S. government should address the
threat of climate change.
Dubbed the "snowpocalypse" – or
sometimes "snowpocalypse II" in deference to the previous storm that
blanketed Washington in December – the scenes on the streets this past
week have actually seemed eerily post-apocalyptic. Silent, monochrome
and empty, they have, for some, forebode a world in which no action is
taken to stem the effects of climate change.
Others, though, see
the wintry landscape as undermining the direness – or even the reality
– of the threat posed by climate change, which they prefer to refer to
as global warming, thus underscoring what they see as the incongruences
between the phenomenon and the snowy spell.
On Wednesday, for
example, climate change denier Sen. James Inhofe told The New York
Times that the recent weather furthered doubts over whether climate
change is "unequivocal" or a human-made phenomenon.
If anything, though, the weather should help dispel those doubts, contend major climate scientists and activists.
snow is not in any way, shape, or form evidence against climate science
and in fact it is largely consistent with it," Joseph Romm, a former
Energy Department official in President Bill Clinton's administration
and the editor of the Center for American Progress's Climate Progress
blog, said Thursday.
"I wouldn't want to say global warming is
the cause or the sole cause [of the snowstorms]&but we are in a
warming trend," he said. "It is absurd when we are in an overall
warming trend that a snowstorm is evidence of a cooling trend. But the
anti-science side – the ideologues – have been trying to push the idea
that we're in a cooling trend and that this is evidence of that."
fact, increased snowfall is entirely in line with climate projections,
said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with WeatherUnderground.com.
the current storms are likely due to "natural variability" – the "jet
stream this year [happened to] set up in a path that includes these
cities" on the eastern U.S. seaboard, he explained – they are
nonetheless historically "extraordinary" and it is reasonable to expect
global warming to bring more such storms in the future.
agrees. "You heat up the planet and you put more moisture in the
atmosphere, you get the more intense precipitation that has been
observed globally and has been observed in the United States," he said.
Washington, this "intense precipitation" – by regional standards – has
shut down much of the federal government since Feb. 5. All votes in the
House of Representatives were suspended for the week and the Senate
only returned to business Thursday. Any number of events have been canceled – from think tank discussions to concerts.
schools were given "snow days" that lasted at least through Thursday
and non-essential federal government employees were granted an excused
leave up through Friday morning.
The virtual shut-down of the
federal government cost the government about 100 million dollars per
day in lost productivity, according to the Office of Personnel
Management, which decides whether or not government employees will be
required to come in to work.
Reports say at least 20 deaths in
the mid-Atlantic region have been attributed to the storm and 4,000
homes were without power late Thursday night. Cars had swerved and
gotten stuck in snow banks, post went undelivered, trash uncollected,
grocery stores' shelves had been pillaged and their queues evoked
numerous references to Soviet-era breadlines in local newspapers.
between the 30 or so inches Saturday and the 10 more Wednesday night,
this winter officially became the worst the U.S. capital has seen since
precipitation has been recorded, with a tally of 55.6 inches of snow so
far this season – a number due to increase when another flurry hits
These storms have also added another pinch of
contentiousness to the climate change debate – one of the many
political tempests that have haunted the city since the summer.
some fear, may be especially affected by the fact that debate over a
phenomenon called "global warming" is taking place in a winter
wonderland. It is possible, for instance, that the wintry weather may
buoy the arguments of climate change deniers and lead to less
willingness by the public to take decisive action on the issue –
especially action that may be expensive or inconvenient.
admits it could be a problem. "That's a difficult thing. And that's why
we're here [talking to reporters], we're here to change perception and
present the science," he said.
That science, said Romm,
"contends you will see more snowstorms due to global warming. You tend
to get more snowstorms in winters that are warmer on average."
snowstorms will not be the only storms in a changed climate. A study in
the Jan. 22 issue of the journal Science projected that while the
overall number of hurricanes will decrease over the next 80 years,
Category 4 and 5 hurricanes – those with sustained winds of 131 miles
per hour and above – will nearly double in frequency. The most intense
of these will more than triple in frequency.
have also pointed to a pattern of fewer but more intense storms as
ocean temperatures rise over the next century.
Friday morning, sun and blue skies greeted Washingtonians – from senators to cafeteria workers.
not in a deep freeze. According to satellite records, this is the
warmest winter on record," Romm said Thursday. "No individual weather
event can be directly ascribed to global warming, but global warming
loads the dice, makes extreme events more likely."
"We still have winter," he added.