Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Snowpocalypse 2010 and Global Warming.

The snowfall in my backyard the evening after the first storm.

The Washington DC area where I live is slowly beginning to recover from a record setting amount of snow that fell in two major storms between February 5th and 10th, 2010. I personally measured ~0.76 meters (30") of accumulation in my backyard, and in areas that were untouched by shovels there is still ~0.38 meters (15") left after five days of melting. Some of the mountains and piles formed from the drifts we experienced on Wednesday were over 1.5 meters tall.

It was truly momentous, and when I call it "Snowpocalypse" (or "Snowmageddeon", as President Obama referred to it) I mean that as no over exaggeration. People in other parts of the country and world may be used to accumulations like that, but around here, it paralyzed businesses, left families trapped in their homes, and caused all kinds of property damage and hazardous road conditions. I spent the majority of my week off from work shoveling sidewalks and photographing birds at the feeder through my front window (although some fun was had playing around and drinking substantial amounts of wine), and while cabin fever never fully set in for me, I was engaged in a lot of repetitive behavior.

I noticed a lot of repetitive behavior coming from another group of people as well. The question on everyone's mind: If global warming is real, what's with all the snow? Many news outlets (and one radio hosts/political commentator in particular) were talking about global warming, and how this record snowfall was a "nail in the coffin" for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Al Gore, and anyone else that believes global warming is a real phenomenon. I don't have cable, but I saw at least one correspondent on ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX news while flipping through channels over the week that brought up the "snow during winter = no global warming" argument. I had also caught more satirical versions of this weather related news (via Hulu) on The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report, but my brother posted a clip on his blog from The Rachel Maddow Show featuring none other than Bill Nye "The Science Guy". Even if you're not a fan of Rachel Maddow, I highly suggest watching the clip and listening to what Bill Nye has to say. If you don't want to take the time for that, but love reading my blog, the important points are as follows.

1) "Global warming" is an outdated term used to describe what most now refer to as "climate change".
2) Monster storms, abnormal weather patterns, and the like have all been predicted by climate scientists in reports on climate change.
3) Weather and climate are not the same thing. Weather is small scale (it is going to rain today, but not tomorrow), and climate is large scale (deserts have a hot climate, polar regions have a cold climate).
4) Denying science is unpatriotic!

A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) feeding on my front porch.

Whether liberal or conservative, climate change supporter or doubter, a fair amount of "arm waving" has been done on both sides of the argument. But there are facts that have presented themselves that people need to be aware of (you can read all about them in the IPCC reports). This snow storm, like many extremely powerful weather phenomenon we've seen across the globe in recent years (Hurricane Katrina for example) are made so much more powerful due to increases in global temperatures (not local temperatures) and the affect that those increases have on our planet's complex climatological cycle. I won't go into the finer points of that cycle right now (I'll save that for another post), but the short version is this: yes, Earth does go through periods of heating and warming as part of the natural climate cycle. But in the last 200 years or so, there is no way any of the over 6 billion people on the planet can deny that anthropogenic factors (those caused by human beings) have contributed to the changes in climate we are experiencing, nor that it will take the Earth a substantial amount of time to recover from the damage we've done to it.

Does snow in DC mean climate change isn't real? Have climate scientists been lying to us about global warming to promote a liberal "green" agenda? Will our global weather patterns spiral out of control at a moments notice (as depicted in such films as "The Day After Tomorrow")? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO. In the northern hemisphere, winters are colder than summers. Sometimes it rains in the desert, and areas where rain is plentiful experience drought. Volcanic eruptions emit greenhouse gasses just like cars and trucks do. These are all small parts of a larger picture that we are slowly beginning to understand. Whether natural or human educed, climate change is real. It doesn't take a 67 degree farenheit day in January (which we did have a few weeks back before the record breaking snow) to prove that to me. Disagree if you like, but looking at the situation as if one blizzard is all the proof you need to discredit climate scientists is not the way to go. Whatever JUST happened is NOT the only thing that is happening. Global darkness skeptics, rejoice! The sun will rise again tomorrow. And hopefully it will melt some of that snow...


A Superoceras reader has made a private comment asking why I didn't mention the recent earthquake in Haiti or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami when I brought up Hurricane Katrina. I had thought about it, but those two events, while devastating and extreme, are not exactly weather related. That is not to say however, that they are not related to climate in some way. It is within the realm of possibility that the climate cycle doesn't just affect the atmosphere and the surface (crust) of the Earth, but may affect other parts of the Lithosphere as well, amplifying earthquakes, tsunamis, and other geological phenomenon. The Earth is a very complex planet, and the living and nonliving systems are all intertwined.

If all of the polar ice melted, sea levels would rise, and would flood the world coastlines. Life in these areas would have to adapt to the new environments created. As ice and permafrost melted, it would also release greenhouses gasses trapped in that ice into the atmosphere. This increase in greenhouse gasses would cause more powerful storms to circulate across the globe. NASA and the USGS have even suggested that the lack of weight from ice on continental and oceanic crust could cause another potential problem: imbalanced tectonic plates and displaced faults lines which could give rise to more frequent and intense earthquakes.

This might seem like something out of a science fiction story, but so do artificially intelligent machines and cloned meat, and yet they are already among us. More scientific research into such matters must be undergone, but givien the complex and sometimes misunderstood nature of our planet, the reality of the situation would not come as a shock to me. Hypothetical situations like the one described above have been suggested before, and I'm sure they will be again. Will there be facts found in such hypotheses? Who knows. But there is only one way to find out. And in denying the connections between climate change and weather (or climate change and geology in this situation), we deny ourselves the opportunity to discover the truth.


  1. Thanks for this article. I've heard a lot of people use the "if it snows than global warming isn't real" argument. Its great to see all the facts laid out in your blog.

  2. Vanessa,

    thank you. There is some hypothesis mixed in there as well, but I've heard the "argument" before so many times, I thought it couldn't hurt to have a few talking points laid out to use against it.