With winter showing its full force over the past month — frigid arctic winds in the prairies, a major snowstorm in southern Ontario and Quebec, and blizzards and powerful winter storms repeatedly slamming the Atlantic provinces — it has given a lot of ammunition to climate change deniers for their oft-repeated claim that global warming and climate change are a hoax.
Well, contrary to what the contrarians are saying, global warming and climate change are alive and well, and these blizzards and major snowstorms are a direct result.
"Climate change contrarians and deniers love to cherry-pick individual events to argue that they are somehow inconsistent with global warming, when they are not," said Dr. Michael Mann, according to The Daily Climate. Mann is a Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, and director of the Earth System Science Center. "As long as it's cold enough to snow – which it will be in the winter – you potentially will get greater snowfalls."
This is due to a fundamental property of the atmosphere — namely that warmer air is capable of holding more moisture. Raise the temperature by 1°C and the air can hold roughly 7% more water vapour. That's why late-fall/early-spring snowstorms tend to drop more snow on the ground, on average, than mid-winter storms — the slightly warmer temperatures mean that the air has more moisture in it to turn into snow.
One thing to point out here is that rising global temperatures are not going to spell an end to winter.
Winters in Canada mean temperatures of -10°C, -20°C, -30°C and even lower, depending on where you live. Continuing on our trend of adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is expected to raise the global temperature by between 2-5°C by 2050 (depending on whether we can curb our emissions). So, just doing the math shows that, although we will see sub-zero temperatures less often, they certainly won't vanish.
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The increase in temperature will mean an overall shorter winter season, though, as it takes longer to cool down at the start of the season and it warms up sooner towards spring.
The higher temperatures will also mean more energy trapped in the atmosphere, and more energy will churn the atmosphere up, like turning up the heat on a pot of water. Just like how the water in the pot moves around faster and faster as the temperature goes up, and in a more chaotic way, these warmer temperatures and greater energy in the atmosphere will cause the weather to become more chaotic and more intense — with greater and more frequent temperature swings, and with weather systems moving along less-expected paths and dumping more precipitation as they pass.
"Strong snowstorms thrive on the ragged edge of temperature — warm enough for the air to hold lots of moisture, meaning lots of precipitation, but just cold enough for it to fall as snow," said National Snow and Ice Data Center director Mark Serreze. "Increasingly, it seems that we're on that ragged edge."
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