Severe conditions? Polar vortex in WNY? Meteorologists explain why it IS global warming

Jan 31, 2019

As Buffalo endures severe cold and blizzard conditions, skeptics of climate change point to the weather and suggest it's proof that global warming is nothing more than hot air. Meterologists explained to WBFO why it's the contrary.

Buffalo entered a second day of severe wind chills Thursday, with schools, government offices and many businesses closed for a second day. States of Emergency and travel bans were imposed in wide portions of Erie County.

A view of severe winter weather in Buffalo. Meteorologists say even bitter cold extremes, such as a polar vortex making its way into the US this week, are a demonstration that the planet's mean temperature is actually increasing.
Credit WBFO file photo

Meanwhile, Chicago endured real temperatures colder than 25 degree below zero. President Donald Trump, in a Twitter message, used the arrival of the polar vortex into the Continental United States as a means to mock global warming. 

Scientists, though, say the severe cold weather does not dismiss the notion of global warming and climate change. Rather, it's one of its symptoms. Stephen Vermette, a meteorologist at Buffalo State College, says temperatures are slowly rising, especially in the polar regions - and ice is diminishing in the Arctic Ocean - and this is allowing wobbling which affects the jet stream and polar vortex.

"We know the temperature differences between the equator and the polls are lessening, due to warming, " he said. "We know the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than other parts of the world. This is going to decrease upper wind speeds. That's step one. Step two is, as upper wind speeds and the jet stream decrease,  they're going to oscillate, or wobble, moving north and south."

That's what's making it possible for the vortex to plunge into the US. But should we count on this as a "new normal?" Politicians like Governor Cuomo, who was in Buffalo Wednesday to discuss storm response, suggest yes.

"We are getting more and more storms with a higher level of frequency," he said. "That is not a political statement. That is a fact."

Don Paul, a former television chief meterologist and now a contributor to the Buffalo News, says those speaking skeptically of climate change, including President Trump, are showing "scientific illiteracy." But he stopped short of calling Buffalo's current winter storm a sign of a new normal.

"We are seeing more extremes but I don't think any case can be made that this blizzard, which at this point is just barely reaching blizzard criteria, is directly tied to a new normal," Paul said Wednesday.

He also tells WBFO it's incontrovertible that the global mean temperature is rising and it will result in weather extremes, especially in parts of the US such as Florida. As for Western New York? That's still uncertain, Paul thinks, because it's not yet clear how the Eastern Great Lakes, which have often served as a buffer for Western New York weather conditions, will be affected long-term.

"We're probably going to suffer fewer of the worst effects, because the water vapor released by Lake Erie kind of modifies the atmosphere," he said. "That's why we've never hit 100 degrees. It's also why Chicago at eight o'clock (Wednesday morning) was 23 below zero, while we were still three above at the time."

Paul added that while this part of the world was experiencing severe cold, other parts of the world were seeing new record high heat. The southern Australia coastline, for example, recently recorded temperatures close to 120 degrees.