Snowballs in Climate Hell

March, 2015 

Where I’ve been recently in Vancouver, Canada, the cherry blossom petals are already flocking on the ground, the daffodils wilting and the camellias almost over. The interior of the province of British Columbia posted heat records last weekend. But when a callous westerner posted these facts to Facebook, a Maritime easterner sourly noted that they were still surrounded by the evidence of record winter snow.

To the polemicist for climate realism, this is a problem. A lot of North American voters live in the swath of continent from roughly Atlanta north. The propaganda value of a savage winter was seized on by U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who proudly tossed a snowball across the floor of the august chamber in late February and declared it more proof that climate change is, in his favourite word on the subject, “a hoax.”

But in fact, both extremes of weather tell a story about the climate, which is different from weather rather in the same way that attitude and personality are different from mood. Mood and weather are what I’m experiencing today. Climate, like attitude or personality, is the pattern of experience over a much longer period; a lifetime for a person, but decades and centuries in the case of climate.

Spring came unusually early to the Pacific Northwest. Above, Vancouver, Canada. © Deborah Jones 2015
Spring came unusually early to the Pacific Northwest. Above, Vancouver, Canada. © Deborah Jones 2015

And viewed that way, the climate of this century compared to the last is showing decided signs of advancing bi-polar disorder. It’s becoming more extreme at both ends of the spectrum. Crazy hot days at one end of Canada, crazy snowy ones on the other. Rainstorms of unprecedented intensity. Droughts also of unprecedented intensity.

Many of these effects are related (more on that in a moment). But here are three things worth knowing about our planetary disorder.

The widening extremes are not evenly distributed. Globally, high temperature records far outnumber low ones. A recent study of the ratio of record high to record low temperatures in 30 European cities over six decades (1950s to 2000s), found that those went from somewhere between zero and one, to closer to five or six to one in most cities, and reached an astonishing 25:1 on the high Arctic Norwegion island of Hopen. But even in Lisbon, Portugal, the records showed that by the 2000s, observations of new record daily maximum temperatures exceeded observations of new record daily minimum temperatures by nearly ten to one.

In America, where 2013 was a bit of a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s, when low temperature records slightly edged out highs (for a high:low ratio of about 0.85:1 that year, versus 0.77:1 and 0.78:1 in those two decades), the 2000s as a whole saw more than twice as many record hot days as cold ones. (I was unable to locate equivalent records for 2014.)

When it comes to temperature, in other words, Earth’s bipolar disorder is displaying far more up moments than down ones. That alone is a powerful signal from the real world, not the modeled one on which most climate forecasts are based, that the planet is, on the whole, heating up.

Much of eastern North America has experienced unusually cold winters recently.  Above, Marine One  lifts off in snow from the U.S. White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by John Sonderman via Flickr, Creative Commons
Much of eastern North America has experienced unusually cold winters recently. Above, Marine One lifts off in snow from the U.S. White House in Washington, D.C. Photo by John Sonderman via Flickr, Creative Commons

But secondly, the increasing occurrence of hot extremes is linked to another weather disparity: the fact that dry places aren’t experiencing more wet records, nor wet places dry ones. Instead, dry places are in general getting even drier, and wet ones wetter.

That is because for now the broad currents of air flow that move moisture around the planet are following more or less their familiar courses (with some exceptions, including the so-called ‘Arctic vortex’ phenomenon blamed for eastern North America’s two recent nasty winters). They’re simply likely to be hotter than before—often much hotter.

This means a couple of things. Hotter air passing over dry places is like hitting them with a giant blow-drier set on ‘Hi’. That hotter air sucks even more moisture from soil, trees and waterways, making droughts even more intense. But all that moisture doesn’t just vanish. It rides those global atmospheric currents until the air eventually does cool down, and then it drops as rain or snow. And because now there is more moisture to fall, the rain is heavier and the snow deeper.

Just such a mechanism may explain much of the heavy snowfall that buried the eastern North American seaboard repeatedly this past winter. The Atlantic at the latitude of the Carolinas is 0.5 to 1.5oC warmer now than it was in 1900. That means winds blowing across it are also warmer and able to absorb more moisture. That additional water falls as snow when it encounters the continental cold brought south by the aforementioned Vortex (itself, according to some earth scientists, the paradoxical result of a less-cold high Arctic inducing the jet-stream which normally fences in its chill, to meander deeper down into the low latitudes.) 

Thirdly, the occurrence of these extremes makes comforting nonsense of scientific predictions that global average temperatures may rise by one or two degrees Celsius by the middle of this century. There are numerous uncertainties about that forecast, drawn from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest review of the available science. But in fact those uncertainties are much less relevant to what we’re actually going to experience than is the fact that our encounters will take place in the real world, not the imaginary one of mathematical averages.

None us actually live in that imaginary world of averages where, as diminutive U.S. pundit Robert Reich likes to observe, he and basketball player Shaquille O’Neal have an average height of 6 ft. 1 in (185 cm). The ‘average’ is simply an imaginary line splitting the difference between the extremes above it and the extremes beneath it. Which means, among other things, that as the longer-scale climate changes, we experience (are already experiencing) daily weather extremes far more acute and far sooner than any forecast change in average temperature or precipitation.

So no, Senator Inhofe’s snowball did not, as a Forbes headline credulously claimed, “destroy global warming claims.” Nor are the meters of snow that piled up in Halifax in any way contrary to the balmy early spring in the southern Rocky Mountains.

Both are symptoms of a common cause: a climate system suffering increasingly acute bipolar disorder. And as anyone who has lived even briefly with a sufferer of that disorder can attest, the experience is likely to prove disorienting, exhausting and highly corrosive to their quality of life.

Copyright Chris Wood 2015




“Ratios of record high to record low temperatures in Europe exhibit sharp increases since 2000 despite a slowdown in the rise of mean temperatures.” Martin Beniston Climatic Change vol 128:1-2, Jan. 2015.  (Available free here:

Record Cold And Snow Destroy Global Warming Claims was the headline on an op-ed penned by James Taylor, a senior fellow at the climate-denialist Heartland Institute. It is available here:

Further reading on F&O:

A new age of ignorance, by Tom Regan

Ordinarily, it would be laughable for a U.S. Republican senator to throw a snowball in the chamber, as did climate change denier James Inhofe, and say that recent cold temperatures in Washington, D.C., prove that climate change was a hoax. But Inhofe is the head of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee, which means he gets to highly influence American policy about climate change. It is like a member of the Ku Klux Klan being appointed the head of a anti-racism committee.



Chris Wood is a founding writer with Facts and Opinions. He is the author of the Natural Security column and occasional long-form Think magazine pieces, and contributes the odd blog entry.

Wood writes about the issues of human social survival in the 21st century. His 40-year career has spanned award-winning work in radio, newsmagazines, books and the internet. He is the author or co-author of seven books, most recently Down the Drain: How We Are Failing To Protect Our Water Resources, with Ralph Pentland (Greystone, 2013).  After growing up near Hamilton, Ont., and later living for periods of time in rural Ontario, the Maritimes, Toronto, Dallas and Vancouver, his home is now on Vancouver Island with  his writer/marketer wife, Beverley Wood, and their two middle-aged bull terrier dogs. Currently, all are on an extended research and study term in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. 

Read more about Chris’s work, or book him as a speaker, at



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