Does Snow Mean Global Warming Isn't Real? In a Word, No.

Does Snow Mean Global Warming Isn't Real? In a Word, No.

Remember that senator who produced a snowball on the floor of Congress, offering it as evidence that global warming did not exist? That was Jim Inhofe (R, Okla.). At a debate in front of the Environment and Public Works Committee in February 2015, he cited his handful of snow as exhibit one-and-only that the Earth's climate was not changing.

"In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 was the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, you know what this is? It's a snowball," he said. "So it's very, very cold out. Very unseasonable."

He then tossed the ball across the chamber, saying, "Here, Mr. President, catch this."

2015 has now dethroned 2014 as the hottest year on record, and now that much of the country is staring down the barrel of what may be the most formidable blizzard in recent memory, climate change non-believers are once again pointing to snowfall as proof that the globe isn't warming. 

And sure enough, Twitter is awash with misguided meteorology:


The thing about weather — no matter how severe the particular incidence — is that it's not a synonym for climate. "Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere 'behaves' over relatively long periods of time," according to NASA

Weather, in other words, is what Earth's atmosphere is doing, "mainly with respect to its effects upon life and human activities." Weather comprises individual events like snow storms, thunderstorms, hail storms, rain storms, wind storms, etc.; weather can speak to temperature — cold fronts, warm fronts, heat waves, cold snaps — and it can speak to conditions like visibility (cloud cover, sunshine) and pressure. 

How does that relate to climate change? "Weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season," NASA says. "Climate, however, is the average of weather over time and space. An easy way to remember the difference is that climate is what you expect, like a very hot summer, and weather is what you get, like a hot day with pop-up thunderstorms."  

Climate change, then, is how average weather patterns change over longer stretches of time. Global warming is exactly what it sounds like: The Earth's temperature — that of its surface, atmosphere, and oceans — rising over time. 2015's all-time high temperature fits within that trend.

As does a severe weather event like a blizzard. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, and more water vapor means more precipitation, according to the Third National Climate Assessment Report. Extreme rainfall and extreme snowfall are symptoms of global warming, the report says. 

How does El Niño fit in? El Niño is a climate cycle in which rising ocean temperatures produce above-average atmospheric temperatures, generally over North America. El Niños are often accompanied by unseasonably warm weather, drought and periodic extreme weather events. Which is what we're seeing right now, at least on the East Coast. 

The beginnings of severe winter weather in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2016.
Source: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

And that is maybe the single largest, common sense indicator that the winter weather in 2015 and 2016 points to global warming. Jonas is the first real snow that New York City has seen since winter began. Temperatures have hovered in the balmy 40s. That's abnormal for late January. Does sudden, aggressive, late-in-the-season snowfall mean that the planet's temperature isn't warming? Not at all. Snow and climate change are not mutually exclusive.