Climate Action

‘Weird’ winter weather and reminders of a warming planet 

Snow on the Hollywood sign? A winter of weather extremes may serve as a call to climate action.

Snow on the Hollywood sign? A winter of weather extremes may serve as a call to climate action. Image: REUTERS/Aude Guerrucci

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Winter in the northern hemisphere has been marked by unusual temperature swings.
  • These 'freakish' weather patterns have been attributed to climate change.
  • Broader first-hand experience with a changing climate could prompt a stronger response.

A dusting of snow on the Hollywood sign that looms over Los Angeles is rare. But it happened last week, and on the same day that record heat was reported in Washington, DC, several degrees of latitude to the north – making it especially jarring.

The recent climate divergence within the US led at one point to a remarkable, 100°F (38°C) disparity between the country’s warmest and coldest locations. Which added yet another footnote to what’s been a winter of weather in the northern hemisphere variously described as “wild,” “weird,” “crazy” and “freakish.”

In Europe, a January heatwave served as a reminder that the region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. South Asia has also experienced unusual warmth, including New Delhi’s third-hottest February day in more than a half century, alongside exceptional cold.

East Asia has encountered its own extremes. Several days after parts of northern China registered their lowest temperatures ever, southern Chinese cities were breaking records for high temperatures in January.

The sight of snowless mountains in winter can readily help people grasp the grim reality of a warming planet. Corresponding cold spikes, though, may feed conspiracy theorists and climate deniers.

In fact, scientists say increasingly volatile swings in both directions are likely the result of overall warming. That makes extreme cold an equally good reason to ramp up climate action.

One theory, for example, posits that warming increasingly jostles the polar vortex, a band of Arctic wind normally circling the North Pole, making temperature readings plummet in the errant wind’s path.

A polar vortex breakdown has been cited for the abruptly frigid weather that overwhelmed the Texas state power grid in winter 2021, killing hundreds of people and causing billions of dollars in damage.

These 'freakish' weather patterns have been attributed to climate change.
These 'freakish' weather patterns have been attributed to climate change.

More frequently bizarre weather means that even people mostly sheltered from the worst impacts of climate change can directly experience events being attributed to it. An entire research discipline, “attribution science,” has been developed to help connect the dots.

But it’s unclear if seeing is really believing.

One study found that experiencing phenomena like polar vortex disturbances plays a “limited” role in climate beliefs, and is “most likely to be seen through a partisan lens.”

Another study had local residents watch 3D video of a simulated typhoon, intensified by elevated sea levels, ravage Hong Kong SAR. For many of them, the experience “did not decrease the psychological distance of climate change.”

Real climate impacts, real repercussions

There might not be much of a need to explain that something’s amiss to the millions of people who now find themselves living in the path of potential glacial lake outburst floods. Or to someone in Boston who recently experienced a temperature swing from -7°F (-21.7°C) to 50°F (10°C) in less than 30 hours (one meteorologist’s assessment: “absolutely wild”).

I haven’t needed much prompting to notice shifts that may be less wild but still remarkable where I live in Switzerland – like an abrupt change in weather settings from icy to balmy week to week, or seemingly day to day.

There are potentially more serious impacts yet to come.

When strange weather events start to accumulate year after year, it probably merits scrutiny.
When strange weather events start to accumulate year after year, it probably merits scrutiny. Image: Global News/YouTube

Europe’s unusually warm winter has drained rivers and lakes to a point where a diminished supply of water in the summer seems likely. “A few years ago, I never would have imagined that water would be a problem here in Europe,” said one researcher.

The unusual warmth may also decrease crop yields for European farmers, who were already dealing with fertilizer shortages and other fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Weird weather isn’t new, of course.

The legendary “year without a summer” in 1816 brought snow to the US during typically warm months, and a constant, rainy gloom to Europe – inspiring Mary Shelley to create one of the most enduring monsters in literary history. The non-summer was caused by a powerful volcanic blast.

But when strange weather events start to accumulate year after year, it probably merits scrutiny.

As places like Redwood City, California (official slogan: “Climate Best by Government Test”) now deal with snow, while at the same time snow-free ski resorts in the Alps try to find new ways to attract visitors, it may be time to confront another monster – by increasing efforts to curb emissions.

And in fact, mitigation efforts will only go so far. Odd weather is another reminder of the need to embrace adaptation on a wider scale, in order to cope with inevitable repercussions affecting where people can live and how economies function.

It could take more time for that to truly sink in, though. Parts of Europe seem to have recently returned to more typical winter weather. And at the tail end of what’s been a record warm period for New York City, snow has made a belated appearance.

It’s almost as if everything's back to normal again.

More reading on weather extremes and climate change

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Putting a price tag on extreme heat – according to this analysis, a lack of investment in climate adaptation could eventually cost one of the hottest cities in the US about $2 billion per year. (Yale Climate Connections)
  • Another daunting assessment – increasingly extreme weather means related financial risk for the shipping ports that handle the bulk of global trade amounts to an estimated $7.6 billion per year. (The Conversation)
  • “Sponge cities” and levees may be the hardware of climate adaptation, but emergency-response systems and risk awareness are its software, according to this piece – and China has learned the importance of this software the hard way. (Eco-Business)
  • “These folks are in the trenches, literally dealing with extreme events.” This piece details an effort to directly involve the frontline workers who physically maintain infrastructure in climate adaptation planning. (Yale Climate Connections)
  • It’s been an odd winter in the northern hemisphere, and a difficult summer in much of the southern hemisphere. According to this analysis, high temperatures and crop failures mean Argentina’s poised to see agricultural exports decline by 28% this year. (World Meteorological Organization)
  • This study delved into a controversial climate change mystery related to modelling global temperature shifts in the millennia before industrialization – and suggests that models may need an upgrade to account for the mounting evidence at hand. (Science Daily)
  • Europe’s winter heatwave has led many people to rue the lack of snow on ski slopes, according to this report, but the high temperatures will have a far more problematic impact on freshwater supplies later this year. (Clean Energy Wire)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, Science and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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