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Photo from NASA.

McDaniel’s climate expert on the weather and global warming

Heat map of Earth.
February 25, 2014

So what’s up with the weather this record-breaking winter? We asked Environmental Studies professor Mona Becker to sort it all out – and explain how the polar vortex and global warming could co-exist on this planet we all share.

“Record cold temperatures and snowfall this year? Just drops in the bucket compared to all the data indicating global warming in the past century,” says Becker, whose courses this semester include “Climatology” and “Environmental Problem Solving.”

A polar vortex is a whirling circle of winds around one or the other of the Earth’s poles. Its job, says Becker, is to keep the frigid temperatures where they belong at the Arctic or Antarctica. The northern polar vortex – the one at the North Pole closest to us – became unstable and weakened twice during late December and early January, spilling bone-chilling cold air onto the U.S.

Mona Becker“We don’t really know why the polar vortex becomes unstable from time to time,” says Becker (pictured right), explaining that it doesn’t mean that the Earth’s climate isn’t changing or even that global warming has been reversed.

Some scientists have speculated that the instability of the polar vortex is related to the fairly rapid warming of the Arctic, but Becker, like most of her peers, says there’s not enough data yet to support that hypothesis or any other. Occasional extremes in temperature are normal – and, when you factor in this warmer than normal winter in Oregon and Washington and even Alaska, the average temperature in the U.S. is well within the normal span this year. 

Climatologists consider the long term – change over thousands of years. While the Earth’s climate is and has been ever changing, Becker says scientists have not seen climate change as rapid as current changes in our geologic records. Until recently, those changes have been slow and gradual.

“You can’t dispute the evidence,” she says. “The warming is unprecedented, and there’s no question that we are influencing climate change on some level.”

But we humans aren’t singularly responsible for global warming, and climate change and weather cycles are natural phenomena that aren’t mutually exclusive – even when Arctic air breaks 50 daily record low temperatures from Colorado to Alabama to the East Coast as it did on Jan. 6, according to the National Weather Service.

None of which is much consolation when the oil delivery truck shows up for the third time in a month and you’ve run out of room to pile the most recent 6 inches of snow. Spring, however, is on its way.    

Curiosity piqued? Becker will discuss climate change after the screening of “Chasing Ice” at 7 p.m. March 20 at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster, Md. The film, sponsored by Sierra Club, charts National Geographic photographer James Balog’s trek across the Arctic capturing images over several years of the world’s changing glaciers. Tickets are $6 for adults and $5 for arts center members, 18 and under and seniors 60-plus.