Planet Earth

When We Talk about Snow

InkfishBy Elizabeth PrestonFeb 8, 2012 2:40 AM


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"Excuse me," the man next to me on the train said mildly, turning in his seat. "Do you remember what you did in the snow?"


"They say it was exactly this day last year that we had all that snow," he said. "So I was wondering, what did you do? Were you working? Did you go home early?" The man was middle-aged, with pale eyes that weren't quite right. He clutched a dirty bag in his lap with both hands.

"Um. They sent us home early, yeah."

"I wish I had a better memory," he said, smiling regretfully.

"You don't remember what you did?"

"About nine o'clock at night," he said, "I remember, I went to go check out the snow. I walked a block or two down the street, but then I saw all those big, huge snow drifts. And I thought, well...if something happened, there was no one around to pull me out, you know?"

Chicagoans called that February 2011 storm the Snowpocalypse. The snow came down furiously all evening. Muffled cracks of thunder sounded from high inside the blizzard. On the highway that runs the city's length, the whiteout slowed traffic to a stop, then froze it in place. Commuters were stranded overnight and had to be rescued by firefighters.

"I wonder," the man on the red line continued, "if you could ask everyone what their ideal snow is, what they would say. Like maybe somebody says, I'd like half an inch of snow between nine and nine-thirty, and that's it!"

"I like a lot of snow," I offered. "But I don't have a car."

"I like a lot of snow, too," he said. We both looked out the window at the gray cityscape, snowless in a 40-degree February.

Chicago isn't the only place experiencing a weirdly temperate winter. Most of the United States has had a warm and dry couple of months. Meteorologist Jeff Masters says that an extremely out-of-the-ordinary jet stream is to blame. Warm air from the Southwest is being pushed across the rest of the Lower 48.

That's funny; I remember when forecasters were telling us this winter would be "another brutal one." But weather is chaotic and hard to predict. That's why climate change models can't tell us for sure whether this freakish year is our fault. Would this one warm streak have happened without our influence, or is it part of the larger pattern of global warming?

Our fault or not, it's hard to talk about this year's unwinter without thinking of climate change. It's not impossible, though. The L.A. Times ran a whole article about the warm weather ("If you looked at U.S. temperatures, you'd say, 'Wow, it was a warm winter,'" says a quoted expert) without once mentioning the climate.

The Wall Street Journal, rather than similarly ignoring climate change in the face of a balmy winter, published an opinion piece called "No Need to Panic about Global Warming." The letter was signed by "sixteen concerned scientists," including at least one (named Claude Allegre) who is also not panicked about asbestos causing cancer.

Previously, the Wall Street Journal had rejected a similar but opposite piece, on why we do need to be concerned about climate change, signed by 255 scientists. Science magazine published that letter, which you can read here. And the Wall Street Journal itself published a rebuttal to the original op-ed. (I won't rehash any of those arguments here, but you can check out my toolkit for talking to climate change deniers.) Unfortunately, when misinformation oozes into the mainstream, it's notoriously sticky to clean up. Rebuttals and corrections can't erase what people have already seen and believed.

You might notice that several signatories of the original Wall Street Journal piece are meteorologists. This is a group especially resistant to the idea of climate change: a 2010 study found that fewer than a third of TV weathercasters believe humans are causing global warming. It may be a problem of seeing the forest through the snow-covered trees. When broadcasters are doing their reporting from the middle of a blizzard, it must be hard to imagine that the world is getting hotter.

I chatted with a man in the Raleigh-Durham airport who looked to be around retirement age. He was an engineer traveling to Chicago for an enormous meeting of people in the heating and cooling businesses. I told him I edit a children's science magazine.

"So you write about the environment? Climate and stuff?" he asked.

"Sure we do," I said. I asked if global warming was a major topic at a conference like this one.

"Well," he said. "I don't know about that warming."

Then he described to me some of the big issues in his industry, such as benefits companies can receive by meeting certain energy standards. "Reducing the carbon footprint of buildings, that's huge," he said.

"If you're talking about reducing carbon footprints," I pointed out cautiously, "that's because of climate change."

"Oh. Sure, I guess," he said. The connection didn't seem to have occurred to him.

Maybe it's impossible right now to show everyone the big picture, the snowless woods behind those icy branches. In our country, climate change has been made into a political issue, rather than an issue of living on the planet. But if people are willing to accept smaller practicalities--tax credits, efficiency requirements, gas prices, different cars on the road--then it might not matter how they perceive the big picture. If the guy in the airport is lowering people's carbon emissions, it makes no difference to a polar bear that he's also reading the Wall Street Journal.

And once people notice the snow is gone, maybe then we'll be able to talk about it.

Photos: by me.

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