Cold? Don't Worry, It's Just the Weather

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It’s getting cold out there – really cold. Here in Europe, we’re experiencing a big chill: although it’s nothing as severe as the record -27C recorded in Scotland 14 years ago, it’s dumped tons of snow, prompted Severe Weather Warnings and forced the closure of many roads, harbors and airports. The tabloid newspaper reaction couldn’t be more predictable. “Global warming? Rubbish!

The last few years have seen an extraordinary amount of popular misinformation, pop-science, lambasting, mud-slinging and expelled hot air on the subject of whether global warming is taking place and if so, whether it’s the result of human activities or not. A global cold spell in 2008 intensified the controversy. Meanwhile, climate scientists continued to practice climate science – in other words, gathering atmospheric data and fitting it into models to predict long-term trends. It was just another year to add to the end of their graphs.

The problem is a common assumption that “climate” and “weather” are much the same thing. Look out your window, see global warming (or the lack of it). In fact, they’re two different atmospheric sciences – climatology and meteorology. Meteorology, better know as “the weather”, is a fabulously complicated series of atmospheric interactions where the mathematics are so complex, so exotically unknowable by modern scientific standards, that all the weathermen can do is give you an informed guess about tomorrow’s sky. Occasionally they can be very, very wrong.

Climatology, on the other hand, is about long-term patterns. You need to stand back to see what’s really happening, like you’re looking at a picture mosaic. Climate patterns only start to emerge over decades (such as with the Keeling Curve), centuries and millennia – and the problem is that many of our yearly measurements don’t go back that far, prompting the use of techniques such as ice coring and dendrochronology.

The long-term pattern is of a steady rise in global temperatures. Period. This is naturally going to affect the weather, but we’re still unsure exactly how – and even if we knew, we still couldn’t predict the weather tomorrow, next week or next year. And just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one cold snap doesn’t make a troubled climate. It’s probably just the weather.

Image: Noël Zia Lee

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.