It happens every winter.
The first significant cold snap of the season hits and somebody wonders what happened to global warming.
Parts of the US are indeed facing record cold temperatures. But, as cold as it is, all this talk of global warming is not overblown.
To understand why, you have to first know the difference between weather and climate.
There’s a difference between weather and climate
Weather is what happens today. Climate is what happens over the long run.
Here’s how NASA explains it: Weather is the condition in the atmosphere over a short period of time. Climate is how the atmosphere behaves over relatively long periods of time.”
In one of his tweets, President Trump wrote in January: “In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”
CNN meteorologist Chad Myers clarified the same point when Trump made a similar quip last year, doubting climate change because of cold weather.
“Climate isn’t a day, climate is long term,” Myers said, as he also pointed out that the pre-Thanksgiving cold snap that the President was tweeting about at the time was mainly concentrated on just one part of North America and not over the whole world.
“There’s one real spot of blue and that just happens to be over New York City, over Washington DC, over Boston, over Ottawa and that’s the big cold mass,” Myers said, pointing at a temperature map of the world. “Just because we have one cold area with the rest of the area being red and well above normal, I don’t think that one little (blue) blob says anything at all.”
(Some) people tend to conflate the two
Climate skeptics have done this for years, i.e. point to cold winter weather as proof that global warming is a hoax.
“People also tend to confuse what is happening where they live as an indication of what is happening globally,” says Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society.
“It is not ‘Where You Live Warming,’ it is ‘Global Warming,’” Shepherd told CNN.
While portions of the US might be mired in a deep freeze, many other parts of the planet are seeing record-breaking heat waves (like Australia last week).
When you average these out over the planet, the hotter temps are tipping the scale. That’s why the hottest 5 years on record for our planet have all occurred since 2014.
There is global warming and it’s dire
The Earth’s temperature has changed drastically in its 4.5 billion-year history, from the Huronian Ice Age that covered vast portions of the planet in ice for nearly 300 million years, to a period about 50 million years ago, when scientists believe that palm trees and crocodiles were native above the Arctic Circle.
Today, climate change is commonly used as a term to describe the effects of global warming that have occurred as a result of human activity following the industrial revolution in the 18th century.
So that’s why global warming is still a thing, even when it seems like the winter weather reigns supreme.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand, Brandon Miller and Ryan Smith contributed to this story.