This kind of winter, to paraphrase novelist P.D. James, is one of those seasons that occur more frequently in memory than in life. Looking back, most of us would swear that, years ago, every winter was bitter cold and every storm was a blizzard, but it was time and not wind that made those drifts of old seem so high.
Sure, there were cold years, and for some reason they have stayed frozen in our minds while the memories of the temperate years have melted away. I well remember the time in college when my eyes froze shut on the way to class. And somewhere there’s a picture of me standing on snow outside one of our sliding glass doors with my skis at your eye level. But if that had been an every year thing I doubt that someone would have taken the picture. No, those years were rare in the past, but they may not be in the future.
Meteorologists, the only profession that is required to be correct only in hindsight, tell us that cold winters historically occur every 4 or 5 years. What has made this year seem so exceptional is that it has been 17 years since the temperature of the entire country has averaged below 18 degrees, although there have been more frequent brief incursions of cold into the south caused by the same mechanism that gave us this winter, and there may be a lot more.
We need the occasional bad winter because they help us cure weather wimps, those annoying and frankly embarrassing people who make us salt the roads like corned beef, and who abandon their cars along the highway when there is even the rumor of a few inches of snow. After spending a few weeks below zero they stop dressing like Nanook of the North, sneer at people who claim they can’t make it to work, and send their kids to school at gunpoint.
And that’s good because, if some long range forecasters are right, we’re going to have to change the way we deal with both extreme heat and extreme cold. For example, easterly winds across the Pacific seem to have been driving huge amounts of heat under water, warming the ocean but keeping the air cooler than it otherwise would be.
Warm water in the northern Pacific warms the air above it, which slows, weakens, and diverts the jet stream to the north. That robs the west coast of rain and allows the bitterly cold air that normally circles the Arctic to plunge down into the center of North America as far as Texas and Florida. Ninety five percent of global warming has been in the oceans, and that is driving not only ocean storms but most of the extreme weather over land.
That pattern has begun to change for this year, but it will be back, maybe a lot more frequently than it has been in the past. And it means that we will have to adapt and do a lot of things differently, such as doing without salted roads, building our houses differently, and improving public transportation by, for example, modernizing the antiquated train switching equipment that failed us this year.
The combination of extreme heat, drought, and extreme cold may well mean that in the future wine grapes won’t grow in Napa and the wheat for pasta won’t grow in the northern plains. We’ve become used to a relatively stable climate, and it’s not clear how well we’ll be able to adapt to more extreme conditions, or even afford the necessary changes.
Of course, we actually know how to do something about the weather. We could stabilize it by keeping the atmospheric CO2 level at an optimal 350 parts per million, but people insist that it’s just too expensive and too much trouble. Really? And all these future hardships and adaptations are not?