By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor
A winter storm in the US has brought death and destruction to Texas, with record breaking low temperatures freezing pipes and turbines creating blackouts across the state. The state which has always prided itself on its electrical independence from the rest of the nation is now helpless as 5 million people are left without power.
Just as climate change disproportionately affects lower-income countries than western superpowers, the poor Texans are more affected by this storm than the rich. Many inhabit poorly insulated houses, other live in trailers, tents or camp out in their cars. Texas is energy-independent from other states and as such, if households cannot pay when the energy bills spike due to demand – they are cut off. The rich, however; have private generators and have the income to travel to other countries to escape (Senator Ted Cruz flew to Cancun, Mexico for a family vacation for example).
“The current conditions in Texas are historical, certainly generational,” said Judah Cohen, the director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research. “But this can’t be hand-waved away as if it’s entirely natural. This is happening not in spite of climate change, it’s in part due to climate change.”
Associating climate change with freezing temperatures may seem counterintuitive but scientists say that there is evidence that the rapid heating of the Arctic pushes cold air from the north pole further south.
Cohen co-authored a paper that discovered an increase in winter storms in the US north-east in the decade leading to 2018. Scientists argue that this is a symptom of Arctic heating which is disrupting long-established climactic systems.
Cold air is normally concentrated around the north pole in the polar vortex, an area of low pressure that circulates in a tight formation in the stratosphere during winter. If interfered with, as the heating arctic does, the rotation of the low pressure can move which alters the entire meteorological system.
Researchers say that this interference is occurring through changes to the jet stream, a band of strong winds that wraps around the globe at lower elevations than the polar vortex. They argue that the warming of the Arctic is causing the jet stream to shift.
“The energy escaping from the jet stream bangs into the polar vortex so it starts to wobble and move all over the place,” said Cohen. “Where the polar vortex goes, so goes the cold air.”
Indeed, this phenomenon has demonstrated itself dramatically over the past month: the polar vortex split has caused large snow storms to be driven across Europe as well as record cold temperatures in parts of the US which is more accustomed to milder winters.
“I’d say the situation this winter is consistent with research that has connected what’s happening in the Arctic with extreme weather patterns in the mid latitudes,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center who has studied the issue. “The polar vortex can elongate, stretch into different shapes and even split. We have seen a very big disruption this year.”
Scientists cannot agree over the interaction between Arctic heat and cold weather patterns in the south; Francis calls it an “active area of research.” Global heating is causing warming winters, but record cold temperatures are now being clearly surpassed by record hot temperatures. The complexity of the climatic conditions needs further scrutiny to be determined.
While an area of disagreement, climate change is undeniably causing a disturbance in weather conditions. With hotter summers and colder winters, extreme weather conditions are also causing a major problem to human civilization. The Texas storm has caused many deaths; people have burnt to death in fires they lit to keep warm, at least 10 people have died from hypothermia, while hundred more have suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. Whatever the cause of the unusual storm, it is clear that America is not prepared for the climate emergency.
The problems are not limited to just a lack of water, food and heat for the Texans – what will happen when the ice melts? The state will see mass floodings, with people being left homeless and financially vulnerable.