Global warming & snowstorms: not a yes or no link
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")
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