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A frigid January and climate change

This January was frigid across Arkansas. The state saw several inches of snow, a layer of ice, and sub-zero temperatures numerous times. So what does this cold stretch tell us about the status of climate change globally? Darby Bybee is the chief meteorologist for 40/29 News, and he joined Ozarks at Large's Matthew Moore to discuss a topic he says he spends all day every day thinking about: weather and climate data.

Darby Bybee: I mean, it got to -10º at Drake Field. If you were to ask people from other parts of the country — even in the Midwest — what do you think the coldest temperature in Arkansas was in January? “Oh, I don't know … it probably got down to 15 or 10 degrees…” No, it got to -10. So yeah, it was really cold. It got really cold in Fort Smith as well.

In Northwest Arkansas, at Drake Field it was the coldest since 2014 though very close to 2018. It was nowhere even close to the coldest January on record but there was a stretch there where it got really cold and there was a little bit of cold air before that, of course it warmed up toward the end of the month but ended up being I think 2.8 degrees below average, at Drake field and around three and a half degrees colder than average in Fort Smith. So absolutely, there was a nasty cold stretch. They're impressive for sure, but not even remotely close to the coldest we've ever seen
Matthew Moore: Do you think that the amount of precipitation plays a role in how we gauge how cold something is?

DB: Well, sure. I mean, you hear people talk about it all time. You know, a wet cold is worse than dry cold, right? You hear people say that sometimes — I don't know if I agree — but I'd rather be, let's say 20 degrees rather than 40 degrees and raining. And I kind of get that I guess. But what happened here is we did have a pretty significant warming event over the North Pole in the stratosphere around mid-month. That likely is connected to the cold air that was experienced not just here but all across the middle of the country in mid-January. It's what we call a stratosphere warming event. It did not lead, as far as I understand, to a full reversal of the Stratospheric Polar winds.

If you can envison the North Pole, way, way, way up in elevation, I mean we're talking many many, many 1000s of feet up around where planes fly but even really higher than that, okay? In an area where you wouldn't think anything going on up there would have any effect on what's going on at the surface. Well, it can. It's not perfectly understood by experts how these stratospheric warming events affect significant cold air outbreaks over North America but there is a connection. It doesn't always play out the same way. But generally speaking, if you see a significant warming of the stratosphere over the North Pole, it tends to basically lead to a situation in which a lot of the cold air at the surface in the higher latitudes gets pushed south into the lower latitudes.

It doesn't just have to be here. Sometimes when that happens, it gets pushed south over Europe or somewhere else. But frequently it does happen that we get that colder air. Now we've got another one of these stratospheric warming events we think that's going to happen here later in the month of February. And that could lead to maybe another plunge of significant cold air toward the in the month or even into early March.

MM: So what that does is it takes what would normally be cold air above the North Pole and moves it away from the North Pole…

DB: It forces it southward, but it doesn't have to force it southward over North America. Sometimes it'll force it south or somewhere else over the northern hemisphere.

MM:  And so the work that's happening there is what's causing the cold weather that we experienced here.

DB: It's likely, but not a guarantee, but it's likely that there is a link. How direct of a link is it's hard to say exactly, but there's almost certainly a link and so we watch for these things, and if we see, it looks like this might happen that we know okay, there could be a significant cold air push down at some point in the next few weeks.

MM: We have a hard time — especially if we're not trained meteorologist like you are — that when we see a really cold stretch of whether we might be led to believe “Okay, well, maybe global warming isn't that big of a deal. Maybe we're overthinking it or we're putting too much emphasis on this thing.” But the way it sounds to me is that this warming that's happening at the North Pole is actually, possibly, causing this cold weather that we're experiencing here.

DB: Well, it's important to keep in mind that we don't know of a direct link between global warming and the stratospheric warming events. There may be, there may not be, we haven't necessarily seen an increase in the number of times this occurs. So we don't know if there's a link there.

But, the very basic reality is the earth is still warming. Just because we get a period of cold air here doesn't mean that the entire planet is cooled. Every single day throughout the course of the year there's going to be a part of the planet that's experiencing much colder than average weather, while at that same time, it's more numerous that there are areas on the planet where it's significantly warmer than average. So just because it's really cold here just means cold everywhere. I think most people understand that even around here, our weather has gradually gotten warmer over the last century.

What's interesting to note is that we just happen to live in a part of the United States where we've experienced some of the least amount of warming. When you look at the Northeast, when you look at the Northwest, when you look at Canada, when you look at the Northern Plains, northern Midwest, many parts of the United States have experience very significant warming over the last century. Here it's not been as pronounced, but it still is occurring. It’s always going on in the background, even if we're experiencing a period of cold weather. It's not representative of what's going on across the globe.

MM: Let's talk a little bit about how we've shifted our language. I think over the last 10 or 20 years when we talk about climate change, I think a lot of us were first introduced to it with Al Gore and his documentary and his kind of work there. And the standard nomenclature was this idea of “global warming.” We we've kind of moved away from that term and kind of moved more towards “climate change.” When you think about describing what's going on, on kind of a more macro level, as opposed to the day to day weather, how do you explain it to people to kind of show the importance of acknowledging what's happening and how things are shifting?

DB: Well, it's as simple as: you have to look at a longer period of time rather than just what's happening within the span of a day or a week or even a month. And if you look at the body of work that our climate has kind of produced over our area and certainly North America, it's clear that we've warmed a lot. The climate has more to do with averages over a long period of time, whereas weather is a day to day deal, or even week to week. And whether you call it “global warming” or whether you call it “climate change,” it doesn't really matter that much. Global warming is more specific. It has to do with the amount of warming that's occurred globally. Climate change is maybe a little broader. And when you when you say climate change, you're really kind of talking about all the other things that go along with the warming. So, really climate change is probably a better way of putting it because not only is the earth warming, but that is leading to changes in certain climate patterns. More so in some parts of the world and less so in others.

We happen to live in a part of the world where we've seen somewhat less warming and therefore the changes are as pronounced. But there are parts of the world in which it's almost unbelievable — especially if you've lived there your entire life. You can see it. You can feel it. In some ways, you can smell it, maybe it's because things bloom earlier in the season or because fall does comes in later in the season, especially at the northern latitudes. And so, the experience is going to be different for everybody.

Some folks who live on the coast anywhere in the world are going to experience more sea level rise than others. Not everyone's going to experience the same sea level rise, so you might experience disastrous conditions in places like Miami maybe, while New York City may not experience the same sort of coastal flooding and the same sort of rising sea level. It's not going to raise the same. So, even along the coasts, the effects aren't going to be the same from here on out.

For us, what we'll experience a little bit more of is probably going to be flash flooding events. And that's in an area of the country that receives a lot flash flooding events. That's one of the deadliest hazards in this part of the world. And so everyone's going to experience the effects of climate change differently. But the impacts are worldwide.

MM: You and I both have little ones. When you think about the sort of work you do, the sort of research that you do, do you think about the impact of the work that you're doing and how that can maybe help to change some minds or to help impact folks who have more authority and ability to do things that will make it a little bit easier for Greer and Teddy? 

DB: Yeah, I think about that all the time. What I've come to believe is that you can't change people's minds by trying to beat it into their heads. That doesn't work and never works. It doesn't work regardless of whatever hatever it is you're trying to convince people of. It’s useless, because you've got to build trust. You have to build trust.

The only way you build trust is simply by being honest with people. Showing them that the data that you're looking at. Showing them the pictures, the lack of alpine glacier ice and the change in Alpine glacier ice across North American across the world. Showing folks the melting that's going on at the higher latitudes. How much less sea ice there is in the northern hemisphere. How it's affecting wildlife, and how it's affecting people. And you just continue down that path of just showing people what is actually happening. And if you do that, it's a slower approach. It takes more time. And it requires you to give the people who don't believe in global warming some grace. We have to do that. We have to be willing to do that, because if you go about it in such a way that you're just screaming at people or trying to make them feel dumb, or like they just don't know what they're talking about. If you're insulting, you can't change people's minds. You have to be trusted. You have to be honest and if people trust you, then they're more likely to listen to you.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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