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Role of Climate Crisis 'Can't Be Hand-Waved Away': Scientists Say Freezing Texas Linked to Warming Arctic

"This extreme polar vortex event epitomizes everything climate change is: unprecedented, unrelenting, affecting a population unaccustomed and unprepared. Yes, we have always had winter—but not here, and not like this."

Junior Ceqara and Alexa Albare share a blanket to keep warm while standing in line to enter Fiesta supermarket on February 16, 2021 in Houston. (Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Junior Ceqara and Alexa Albare share a blanket to keep warm while standing in line to enter Fiesta supermarket on February 16, 2021 in Houston. (Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

While the climate emergency is typically associated with heat waves, wildfires, and other signs of a hotter planet, some scientists are arguing the bitterly cold weather currently contributing to suffering and death in Texas and other states accustomed to mild winters is connected to the rapid warming of the Arctic.

"The current conditions in Texas... can't be hand-waved away as if it's entirely natural. This is happening not in spite of climate change, it's in part due to climate change."
—Judah Cohen, Atmospheric and Environmental Research

"Every cold snap," as the New York Times noted Monday, "can be counted on to elicit quips and stunts from those who deny the science of climate change."

Nevertheless, even though the connection between global warming and "weather patterns that send freezing air from the polar vortex plunging all the way to the Gulf Coast" can seem counterintuitive, the newspaper continued, devastating cold-weather events like Winter Storm Uri are related to a climate crisis driven by accelerated greenhouse gas emissions and defined by rising temperatures.

That's why the climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe told the Times she prefers the phrase "global weirding."

Journalist Emily Atkin explained Tuesday in her Heated newsletter that the jet stream bringing "dangerous Arctic weather to millions of Americans" is, like other forms of extreme weather, related to the climate crisis. Atkin cited Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who told her several years ago that "all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be."

According to the Times, "The air that usually sits over the Arctic is now sweeping down South because of changes to the jet stream, the high-level air current that circles the Northern Hemisphere and usually holds back the frigid polar vortex."

"There is research suggesting that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, allowing the cold air to escape to the south, especially when a blast of additional warming strikes the stratosphere and deforms the vortex," the Times reported. "The result can be episodes of plunging temperatures, even in places that rarely get nipped by frost."

While Amy Butler, a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chemical Sciences Laboratory, disputes the existence of "any long-term trend in polar vortex disruptions" because, as she told the Times, they "occur naturally even in the absence of climate change," other experts argue that there is, if not a causal link, then a correlation between climate change, a weakened jet stream, and an increase in southward excursions of cold air.

Judah Cohen, the director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, told the Times that "severe winter weather is much more frequent when the Arctic is warmest."

"The current conditions in Texas are historical, certainly generational," Cohen told The Guardian Wednesday. "But this can't be hand-waved away as if it's entirely natural. This is happening not in spite of climate change, it's in part due to climate change."

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According to Atkin, Cohen is echoing the findings of Jennifer Francis, a research scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, who reiterated Tuesday that "this kind of pattern is going to be more likely."

While The Guardian noted that "there is no consensus among scientists over the interaction between Arctic heat and cold weather further south," Cohen, Francis, and other scientists argue that changing winter weather patterns are "a symptom of heating in the Arctic," which is "occurring at a rate more than twice the global average [and] disrupting long-established climatic systems."

As Atkin put it:

This extreme polar vortex event epitomizes everything climate change is: unprecedented, unrelenting, affecting a population unaccustomed and unprepared. Yes, we have always had winter—but not here, and not like this. Now take out the word "winter," and replace it with every other extreme weather event. That's climate change.

Despite the fact that the deadly power outages in Texas—a state heavily dependent on a deregulated fossil fuel industry—have been attributed by energy officials to frozen equipment at gas, coal, and nuclear plants, right-wing media outlets and Republican lawmakers are senselessly blaming the entire disaster on frozen wind turbines in an attempt to discredit renewable energy and even a yet-to-be implemented Green New Deal, as Common Dreams reported earlier Wednesday.

As Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote Tuesday:

Weather-related power outages are increasing across the U.S. as climate change produces more extreme storms and temperature swings. States that design their buildings and infrastructure for hot weather may need to plan for more big chills, and cold-weather states can expect more heat waves. As conditions in Texas show, there's no time to waste in getting more weather-ready. 

"The crisis in Texas right now is not an accident," tweeted Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday night. "This is the result of energy policy that puts corporate profits over human life."

"We're going to end that reckless greed," Bowman added, "with a Green New Deal," which, as Public Citizen pointed out, "is cheaper than a climate apocalypse."

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