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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 03/ 2/2011

Global warming & snowstorms: not a yes or no link

By Jason Samenow

A day after the Union of Concern Scientists (UCS) - a non-profit environmental group - announced "Climate Change Makes Major Snowstorms More Likely", USA Today's Weather Editor Doyle Rice published an interesting story on possible linkages between U.S. snowstorms and global warming.

Unfortunately, however, the headline USA Today chose to accompany the story "Scientists: Global warming to blame for big U.S. snowstorms" is scientifically unsupported and misleading as 1) the scientific literature indicates global warming may enhance but nowhere indicates is to "blame" for heavy snowstorms and 2) even some of the scientists/studies the story itself cites reject the hypothesis that global warming is enhancing snow in the U.S.

The headline - used as an attention grabber - improperly frames a scientifically muddy issue in black and white.

More scientifically responsible headlines would've been:

"Enviro group reports new links between heavy snow and global warming"
"Scientists explore global warming's role in U.S. heavy snowstorms"

Just last week Andrew Freedman said:

...the oft-made assertions that "global warming will make the weather more extreme" or that warming "caused" a particular severe weather event to occur, make me cringe.

And a few weeks prior, I wrote the following about the media's tendency to oversimplify explanations for weather and climate:

It seems journalists and scientists around the world continue to struggle in their quest to comprehensively explain what's happening with the weather. If one can draw any conclusion, it's that multiple explanations are possible, and that the more simplistic the explanation, the more likely incomplete.

Not only is the headline in the USA Today story problematic, but the opening paragraph of the story mischaracterizes UCS' announcement and is devoid of the necessary nuance and context. The article begins:

"What caused the colossal snowfalls that buried much of the USA this winter, setting snow records in New York City and Chicago? One group of scientists blames. .. global warming."

That's not really what UCS said. UCS said global warming - by increasing moisture in the atmosphere - is making heavy snowstorms more likely by "loading the dice" to increase their frequency. So UCS is talking about global warming enhancing snowstorms not causing them. That's a subtle, but critical difference scientifically.

No scientist I know will tell you global warming causes a snowstorm, but may tell you it could increase the associated moisture and/or alter weather patterns to change the areas affected.

The simplistic "it is" or "it isn't" treatment of a complex scientific issue only serves to confuse the public and polarize the debate about what's actually happening. That's apparent in hundreds of comments on the story, which deal more in ideology than science.

Deeper into the story, Rice does a good job of describing the range of viewpoints and research on the global warming and snow connection, but he set the wrong tone with the headline and introduction...


Post script: Jeff Masters, who participated in UCS' press announcement yesterday, is doing a live chat on global warming and snowstorms at 1 p.m. on USA Today's website.

Capital Weather Gang interviewed Jeff Masters on the matter last year:
Expert: Blizzards "consistent with" climate change

See also these additional links CWG has published on snow and global warming, which offer a range of perspectives on the issue:

D.C. record snow in 2010 not due to global warming (as an aside, one could criticize this headline as being too definitive, a better headline might have been "D.C. record snow in 2010 not caused by global warming alone")

The winter the Arctic shifted south

By Jason Samenow  | March 2, 2011; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Latest  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: My perceptions of winter, a review: Part I
Next: February & December-February weather recap


One possible effect of global warming--persistent areas of severe drought underneath the subtropical highs, including the southern U.S.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | March 2, 2011 1:16 PM | Report abuse

i think even with all the qualifiers, i still think "blame" is the wrong word.

it's wrong to "blame" global warming for increasing the likelihood heavy snows. a much better word would be "credit" - as in "global warming "CREDITED" with increasing the likelihood of....."

but seriously, this is in that class of secondary/tertiary effects that scientists have to be very careful about predicting, lest they undermine the larger, much more certain, truth of global warming. predictions about these local weather effects are held with MUCH less certainty than basic global warming theory - and scientists have to make that clear.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 2, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse


Agree with your comment... and think "credit" is a much better word than "blame". Good suggestion.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | March 2, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I would go with global warming "hypothesized" to increase the frequency of larger snowstorms. Or "Theorized to increase the likelihood". As Walter correctly points out, the link is a theory, not a certainty. What would make it a stronger theory is some matching empirical data showing that the severity of snowstorms has increased over the 70's (I don't believe it has).

Posted by: eric654 | March 2, 2011 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Hi there --- Doyle Rice here across the river at USA TODAY. Thanks, Jason, for the link to my story. You do raise some good points about word choices and tone in the story's headline and first paragraph. It often is a challenge to find the right balance between words that are crisp and clear, compared to writing that is muddled and full of qualifiers. I'll keep your comments in mind, though, for next time... Meanwhile, keep up the good work.

(Incidentally, we're as far as you can get from hurricane season... The 2010 season ended 90 days ago, and the 2011 season starts in 91 days).

Posted by: dsrice1 | March 2, 2011 6:44 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for dropping by. Aside from my issues with the opening, thought it was a good piece and enjoyed reading it.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | March 2, 2011 7:01 PM | Report abuse

Remember Andrew Freedman reviewed a paper by Pall et al published in Nature last month where they computed anthropogenic greenhouse gas contribution to flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000. In that paper they developed a probabilistic event attribution framework quantifying the anthropogenic contribution to flood risk. Specifically they calculated the fraction of attributable risk (FAR, a statistic already in the literature). A FAR of 0 means zero attribution and 1 means full attribution. They showed the FAR in this case was likely between 0.5 and 0.67, meaning the risk of the flood was 2 to 3 times greater with AGW than it would have been without.

This is the kind of probabilistic language that should reasonably be used. So the headline could have read, "Scientists: Global warming increased risk for big U.S. snowstorms". Not as sexy as "blame" but much more precise.

Posted by: imback | March 2, 2011 10:51 PM | Report abuse

nice stat about hurricanes. today, we're really safe from a hurricane.

not increased "risk". increased "opportunity"...

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 2, 2011 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget that 2010 was the Hottest Year Ever.

Posted by: elrmer | March 3, 2011 6:40 PM | Report abuse

The Medieval Warming Period was warmer, and for longer (about 400 years). There are some 900+ peer reviewed studies developed by investigators from 40+ countries, representing hundreds of different organizations. Scientists finally choked when the IPCC (via Mann) invented the hockey stick graph denying both the little ice age and the MWP. Even the UN has backed away from that. Current proponents of global warming state that their is no explanation for this warming, so it must be caused by the increase in CO2, and CO2 has increased as a result of our industrial activity. But there is no evidence showing that increases in CO2 cause the planet to warm. The CO2 level was much higher in the distant past during 3 ice ages, and going into one ice age, and the relationship that does exist between CO2 and temperature is the reverse of Al Gore's claim. Fluctuations in temperature occur some 800+ years BEFORE similar fluctuations in the level of CO2.

Also, there was no industrial activity during the MWP - at least nothing significant (and CO2 was at the so-called normal level during that period (about 280 ppmv).

Obviously we will have to look hard at other energy sources (windmills will never amount to much).

The terms "climate change" and "climate disruption" were based on politics. Our current warming started a couple hundred years ago. That immediately followed a 500 year "little ice age" which, in turn, followed the Medieval Warming Period. Our warming could hopefully continue for another 200 years and be no longer than the MWP, but unfortnately it's not likely to happen.

There has been no statistically significant warming for the past couple of decades, which you won't hear from Hansen at NASA, but even one of the major players at the UN's IPCC (Phil Jones) reluctantly admits that.

A google doc can be accessed at:

Posted by: gofigure | March 3, 2011 8:45 PM | Report abuse

It makes me laugh how the warmists are trying to twist reality and tell us that global warming can bring us snowstorms and cold winters too. But it should not surprise us that they are resorting to such desperate measures since their movement from the beginning had an illegitimate birth. The real push to sell us AGW started in 1988 when Hansen testified to the Senate that warming had started. That warming trend was then ten years old according to a temperature graph from NOAA that appears in the 1990 IPCC report. But it turns out that this warming shown by NOAA is itself entirely fake. We know this because fortunately satellites also had been measuring global temperature during this period and they simply cannot see this warming that NOAA and others see. What they do see in its place is a series of temperature oscillation, up and down by half a degree for twenty years, but no rise until the super El Nino of 1998 shows up. You can look at these satellite temperature curves in my "What Warming?" which is out on Amazon and see exactly how NASA, NOAA, and the Met Office falsified tempertatures. The satellite record itself extends for thirty one years and shows that there was only one short period of global warming during all of this time. It raised global temperature by a third of a degree in four years and then stopped in the year 2002. A third of a degree may not sound like much but it is half of what has been allotted to the entire twentieth century. This, and not some greenhouse effect is responsible for the unusually warm first decade of this century. Its cause is oceanic, not anthropogenic. There hasn't been any warming since it ended and there was none before. This long-term temperature falsification by supposedly respected sources of climate information is by far a bigger scandal than Climategate which is just the tip of the iceberg. It involves coordinated action since the late seventies and is still going on. This makes it not just a crime but a criminal conspiracy too that needs to be criminally investigated. A Climategate style whitewash will not do because trillions of dollars hang on the truth or falsity of the temperature curves that are used to justify stringent measures of emission control by governments.

Posted by: ArnoArrak | March 3, 2011 9:00 PM | Report abuse

ArnoArrak, how many separate independent inquiries will it take to satisfy you?

In November of 2009, thousands of emails and other documents were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and made public. Within a few days, every conservative hack in America was trying to turn them into a worldwide, Al Gore, conspiracy.

What followed was a series of 5 independent inquiries, soon to be 6.

On March 31, 2010, the Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry reported that the emails and claims raised in the controversy did not challenge the scientific consensus that “global warming is happening and that it is induced by human activity“. They also said that they had seen no evidence to support claims that Jones had tampered with data or interfered with the peer-review process.

On April 14, 2010, the Independent Science Assessment Panel published and concluded that the panel had seen “no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit.” It found that the CRU’s work had been “carried out with integrity” and had used “fair and satisfactory” methods. The CRU was found to be “objective and dispassionate in their view of the data and their results, and there was no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda.” Instead, “their sole aim was to establish as robust a record of temperatures in recent centuries as possible.”

In July 2010, a British investigation commissioned by the UEA, chaired by Sir Muir Russell, announced and published in its final report that it had exonerated the scientists of manipulating their research to support preconceived ideas about global warming. The “rigour and honesty” of the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit were found not to be in doubt. The panel found that they did not subvert the peer review process to censor criticism as alleged, and that the key data needed to reproduce their findings was freely available to any “competent” researcher.

A separate review by Penn State University into accusations against Michael E. Mann cleared him of any wrongdoing, concluding that “there is no substance” to the allegations against him.

After the July 2010 reports, the New York Times referred to Climategate as a “manufactured controversy,” and expressed the hope that reports clearing the scientists “will receive as much circulation as the original, diversionary controversies,”.

The Columbia Journalism Review criticized newspapers and magazines for failing to give prominent coverage to the findings of the review panels, and said that “readers need to understand that while there is plenty of room to improve the research and communications process, its fundamental tenets remain as solid as ever.”

CNN media critic Howard Kurtz expressed similar sentiments.

In June 2010 Newsweek called the controversy a “highly orchestrated, manufactured scandal.”

Newsweek isn’t exactly a liberal rag.

Stop spreading disinformation.

Posted by: HarryBraun | March 4, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

ArnoArrak, in a court of law, an expert witness is a witness, who by virtue of education, training, skill, or experience, is believed to have expertise and specialize¬d knowledge in a particular subject beyond that of the average person.

That said, if we went to court to settle this issue, who would the denial camp call as their expert witnesses?

The deniers would call James "Mountain Jim" Inhofe, along with his new book “HOAX”.

We'd bring the National Academy of Science of the United States.

As a matter of fact, we could bring anyone of 32 national science academies that have come together from every corner of the earth to issue joint declarations confirming anthropogenic global warming, and urging the nations of the world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

The deniers would bring Patrick Michaels, a fellow who’s in hot water right now for lying to congress about who signs his pay check. When asked, he said that only 3% of the $4,000,000 he received last year came from oil and gas interests when in fact it was more like 40%.

We'd counter with the American Geophysical Union and its 58,287 members.

The AGU was established over 90 years ago, and for more than 50 years has operated as an unincorporated affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences.

These aren’t “NOBODIES.”

The National Academy of Sciences is like the Supreme Court of science; they are the best of the best when it comes to science, of an entire nation.

The deniers would bring to the stand Khabibullo Abdusamatov, a semi-retired Russian astrophysicist.

We'd bring Stephen Hawking, one of the most awarded scientists in human history.

The deniers would bring 87 year old Fred Singer.

Singer is best known for his denial of the health risks of passive smoking.

We'd bring the American Institute of Physics.

The AIP has been publishing scientific journals for almost 80 years.

The deniers would bring Henrik Svensmark a physicist at the Danish National Space Center in Copenhagen who studies the effects of cosmic rays on cloud formation.

We'd bring NASA.

The deniers would bring Sherwood B. Idso, the coal guy.

We’d bring The Royal Society of Canada, the oldest association of scientists and scholars in Canada.

We'd bring every scientific organization that knows anything at all about this subject because they all agree with the conclusions of the IPCC.

Posted by: HarryBraun | March 4, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

HarryBraun, don't let the science denialists get you down. :-)

Posted by: imback | March 4, 2011 10:32 PM | Report abuse

This hate commentary by Harry Braun has no science content whatsoever. Perhaps this has something to do with his major in college which was "General Science.“ In New York we teach this subject to high school freshmen. From there he went on to study evolutionary biology, something that I think highly of. But somehow all this does not seem to add up to expertise required to do climate science. This does not stop him, however, and he claims marvelous solutions to our global warming problems through his Phoenix Project. Checking his paper about it from 2004 we read that “... the Phoenix Project calls for simply modifying every existing vehicle, appliance and power plant to use solar-sourced hydrogen, which is the only ’universal fuel’ that is non-toxic, essentially pollution-free, and inexhaustible.“ What he says about hydrogen is true of course. If I could believe that his proposal is physically possible I would be the first to jump on the bandwagon. But unfortunately this is one of those “unreachable goals“ - wonderful but impossible to achieve. He is an idealist in this respect but his political side is less admirable. He goes to great lengths to justify the various attempts to whitewash Climategate participants and also tries to justify Mann’s hockey stick despite what we know about it. Science is not democratic and scientific truth cannot be determined by voting. It is simply unfortunate that many scientific organizations have been misled to support global warming propaganda that has no scientific basis. The only historical analogy I can think of is the eighteenth century when phlogiston was king of warmth. They were slow to relinquish it, tried renaming it caloric, but eventually had to admit that scientific observations invalidated their theory. Today the greenhouse theory of global warming is crumbling and is headed for the same trash heap of history that swallowed both phlogiston and caloric. Arctic warming that has been featured as an accelerated form of global warming has been proved to be caused by warm currents from the Atlantic ocean and not by carbon dioxide greenhouse effect. The warming started over a century ago when a rearrangement of the North Atlantic current system took place. It paused in mid-century and is still going strong. And last but not least Ferenc Miscolczi has shown that the global average infrared optical thickness of the atmosphere has remained constant for the last 61 years, with a value of 1.87. This means that addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere during all these years has not had any effect on the transparency of the atmosphere in the infrared where carbon dioxide absorbs. Which means that the greenhouse absorption signature of the added carbon dioxide is simply missing. No absorpton, no greenhouse effect, case closed.

Posted by: ArnoArrak | March 4, 2011 10:47 PM | Report abuse

I think you made your point about the media. But you are giving it to much attention.

Pointing out a flawed headline in USA Today is pushing this issue to the margins, which is exactly what the people who are fighting government action on global warming want you to do.

Posted by: smoke111 | March 5, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

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