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Extreme U.S. Cold Snaps—Including Texas Winter Storm—Linked To Rapid Arctic Warming, Study Finds

 TOPLINE  Rapid Arctic warming driven by climate change could be responsible for the increasingly extreme winter weather in some parts of the United States, according to a study published in the journal Science on Thursday, providing the first evidence linking February’s killer winter storm to human-driven global warming. 


  • Melting sea ice, increasing snowfall over Siberia and rapidly rising Arctic temperatures—the Arctic is warming around two times faster than the global average—are potentially disrupting the weather system that usually traps cold air in the Arctic, the researchers found.
  • This disruption can have a big knock-on effect on complex weather patterns and can cause the system, known as the polar vortex, to stretch and allow cold air to move over parts of the U.S. and Canada, the researchers wrote.   
  • Extreme winter weather in the U.S. was more common when this vortex was disrupted and there has been an increasing number of stretching events since satellite observations began in 1979, the researchers wrote.   
  • The lethal Texas cold snap in February was likely a result of this stretching process, the scientists wrote.  
  • The study “provides cautionary evidence that a warming planet will not necessarily protect us from the devastating impacts of severe winter weather,” said lead author Judah Cohen, an MIT professor and director of Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a weather risk management firm.


The researchers’ findings, based on computer modeling and observational data, give further weight to the counterintuitive idea that global warming can actually lead to colder weather in some places. There is no scientific consensus yet on the role Arctic warming may play in increasingly cold extremes in the U.S., though the Texas snowstorm in February reinvigorated discussion on the matter. 


The U.S. has faced a number of climate-related disasters this year, including severe heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and most recently, hurricane Ida. While experts clearly and confidently tie the increasing severity and frequency of such events to human-driven climate change, the reasons behind the uptick in cold weather has remained contentious. Details of the February freeze that killed hundreds and left millions in Texas without power are still coming to light months after the fact. In a recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading U.N. authority on climate science, warned that global temperatures will likely exceed limits set under the Paris agreement unless drastic and immediate action is taken, warning that some changes already wrought may be irreversible for millennia. Even in its best-case scenarios, the group expects extreme weather events to get worse and become more frequent. A recent report from the U.N.’s weather agency highlights the increasing severity and cost of extreme weather, though better warning systems mean fewer people are dying from them.  

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