TCB Quick Hit: the January 2024 cold wave
Get ready for a blizzard ... of bullshit
A blizzard is coming … a blizzard of bullshit that is. This post will help you understand the implications of the upcoming cold event that will cover much of the U.S.
“It’s cold, therefore climate change is a hoax”
Nope. Cold events still occur as the climate warms, just less frequently. One of my first TCB posts was about temperature records. In it, I had a version of this plot. It shows the occurrence of cold records as a function of year:
Here are the lines:
The orange line is a theoretical calculation of the frequency with which we expect cold records to occur in a stable climate (i.e., one not warming) as the length of the record gets longer,
the blue line shows the number of cold records in a climate models that has a stable climate (a so-called control run),
the green line shows the actual number of records in the observations,
the red line shows the number of records in a climate model that accurately simulates the warming of the last 150 years (models with historical forcing).
It is clear that cold records are occurring a lot less frequently than they would in a stable climate, which is expected since our climate is not stable.
The upshot: Models and observations confirm that cold events continue to happen. But an event that was once considered normal appears extreme due to the effects of global warming.
“This is caused by climate change”
Other people will argue that climate change makes these cold events more frequent. I am not convinced. Observations do not show increases in cold events over time and models do not simulate it. For example, this is a plot put together by my colleague and Texas State Climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon:
The plot shows that, on average, Texas’ coldest temperatures are becoming less cold and that extreme cold is occurring less frequently. The 2021 Winter Storm Uri, which caused widespread blackouts in Texas and was viewed as a rare and extreme event at the time, would have a more typical occurrence in the early 20th century.
I should note that I have colleagues that I respect who disagree with this. Ultimately, this question will be settled with more data and analyses. But for now, be skeptical of this claim.
What you should do
Extreme cold doesn’t have much of an impact on places that get very cold regularly (e.g., Minnesota). The impacts are mainly in places that don’t regularly get very cold — think Texas during Winter Storm Uri, which killed a staggering 750 people.
Most of these deaths were not directly due to people getting too cold, but rather the loss of infrastructure: electricity going out, iced roads making it difficult for sick people to reach the emergency room, medically vulnerable people killed by the stress of having no heat or water, etc.
If you’re living in a place that doesn’t get cold very often, make sure you’re ready for being without electricity and stuck in your house. You should have enough medicine to last a week or two and have plans for being out of power for an extended length of time. Hopefully you won’t need those plans, but better safe than sorry.
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