How is the world getting both a) warmer and b) snowier in some places? Here's how.

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. I’m just taking a couple of minutes to step outside our studio to take in the snow, and don’t believe what you hear about another snowstorm on the way because, truth is, it really hasn’t stopped snowing since sunday. It’s snowing again and it’s not a storm, but flakes are definitely coming down. As you walk around Boston, you realize there are few sidewalks--there are some narrow alleyways, more like trenches in WWI; piles of snow often over my head and you’ll see people coming down the other end of the trench and there’s this kind of polite little dance--”You go first,” “No, you go first.” This is New England and we know how it works, and I’m going to stop complaining, but I do want to know if there is any connection between the snow and climate change, and for that, I drag The World’s environment editor Peter Thomson out into this weather to tell me more. So, people hear global warming and they wonder “Okay, so what’s up with all the snow and cold?” What is that about?

 

Peter Thomson: Yeah, well that happens pretty much every time it snows. Certainly on the east coast of the United States, from Washington to Boston, if it snows in the wintertime, somebody is going to say “Well, see? Global warming is bogus.” Just because it’s snowing doesn’t mean the world’s climate isn’t undergoing a pretty rapid and significant shift. We still have winter, we still have cold air. We also have an increase in extreme precipitation events--big rainstorms, big snowstorms. A warmer atmosphere and warmer oceans basically means that more moisture is going into the air and that’s the stuff of storms. What it seems like we’ve got here right now in New England is this confluence of cold air coming down from the north and this very warm ocean. From here, it’s five miles to the ocean.

 

Werman: Yeah, we were walking outside and you were showing me this map of ocean temperatures around the globe, and it’s pretty shocking what we’ve got in the north Atlantic right now.

 

Thomson: Yeah, this is from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. Today’s data on global ocean surface temperatures--a lot of red spots. One of the biggest ones is right here off of the eastern United States and Canada, basically running from the Carolinas all the way up to Newfoundland, big red spot of really warm ocean. That’s pumping moisture into the atmosphere. So, we’ve got these cold weather systems coming in from the north, we’ve got these low pressure systems forming over the ocean that are pumping moisture into the atmosphere. They circulate together and what you get is a lot of snow coming down here. This is not that different than what’s been happening during the summer as well. The area with the largest increase in extreme precipitation events in the United States is the northeast, up 71% from 1958 to 2012. Now, you have to remember of course that there’s always been extreme weather, there’s always been downpours, there’s always been blizzards. What we seem to be seeing is a general uptick--more extreme precipitation events, more rain, more snow falling more quickly and causing big problems.

 

Werman: Well, since we started chatting Peter, the snow has not stopped falling but the sun is coming out, so that’s good news.

 

Thomson: I have to say, even in this dismal alley at the back of our WGBH studios here, it’s like storybook stuff. As awful as the last couple weeks have been, I love snow. I’m a New Englander. It’s even making these ugly trucks and walls and concrete look fabulous.

 

Werman: Alright Peter, thanks for doing this little show and tell in the snow. Let’s get back inside because I have another weather event talk about and this one doesn’t need for us to be out here in the storm as if we’re on network TV. The World’s environment editor Peter Thomson, thanks very much.

 

Thomson: Thanks Marco. See you in a few minutes. I’m going to stay out here and build a snowman.