Texas cold snap fuels debate on whether climate change is to blame

Residents helping a pickup driver to get out of ice on the road in Round Rock, Texas, on Wednesday after a winter storm. The freak cold spell has killed at least 21 Americans in the state and shut down power for days. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Residents helping a pickup driver to get out of ice on the road in Round Rock, Texas, on Wednesday after a winter storm. The freak cold spell has killed at least 21 Americans in the state and shut down power for days. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HOUSTON • The freak cold spell that has killed at least 21 Americans and shut down power for days in Texas has revived scientific discussion over whether climate change could be delivering this week's chill.

Scientists say global warming - specifically the rapid warming of the Arctic - is a possible, if not likely, culprit in the extreme weather.

Historically, frigid temperatures have typically been contained within the Arctic by a jet stream circling the polar region. In fact, along with the spinning of the planet, it is the contrast in temperatures and atmospheric pressures between the Arctic and lower latitudes that results in the winds.

But as the Arctic has warmed more than twice as fast as the global average over the last three decades, that contrast can be less pronounced, said climate system scientist Paul Beckwith in Ottawa. That could cause the polar jet stream to slow down and meander, so that it carries more warmer air towards the pole and frigid air further south, he said.

"What we're seeing this year is an extreme example of what happens when the jet stream trough goes really deep southward," he said. "I think it's a rock-solid case."

But "it might take a bit of time for the science to catch up and find all the details" to prove it.

This polar vortex theory, first proposed in 2012, has some researchers like him worried about what future warming might mean for traditionally temperate lands further south.

Others caution it is still too early to draw conclusions. The theory "remains speculative, and it is the reporting of it as fact that is not justified", climate scientist Geoffrey Vallis at the University of Exeter tweeted on Tuesday. "It may be true, but perhaps more likely not."

Cold weather is something to expect in winter, after all, and extreme cold could be a result of natural variability, some say.

However, scientists have found a strong correlation between extreme winter weather in 12 US cities and warmer temperatures in the Arctic over the last 50 years, according to research published in 2018 in the Nature Communications journal.

The United States may not be the only country affected, either.

Temperatures fell to a bone-chilling minus 60 deg C in Russia's Siberian region of Yakutia last month, according to the Roshydromet meteorological service. Much of Russian Siberia had one of its 15 coldest Januaries on record, it said.

Climate scientist Vladimir Semenov at the Moscow-based Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics said the recent cold spell in Russia could be another likely consequence of a wobbly jet stream.

While Dr Semenov acknowledges there is still not enough data to establish a firm climate link in the pattern, he said research pointing to the theory of a "wavier" polar jet stream due to Arctic warming was compelling.

Computer simulations of climate and weather patterns have resulted in contradictory findings on the issue though, he said. "Thus, the uncertainty still remains."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2021, with the headline 'Texas cold snap fuels debate on whether climate change is to blame'. Subscribe