Climate Corner: Climate change played a role in Winter Storm Elliott

Dec 31, 2022

Randi Pokladnik

Some will use the recent cold weather event to claim climate change is not real and the planet isn’t warming. But, when one looks at the actual science behind these “Arctic bomb cyclones” and the record-breaking Winter Storm Elliott, it is obvious that climate change has played a role.

This past week, many of us might have felt like we were enacting the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow.” The movie is loosely based on a theory called “abrupt climate change.” The ocean’s thermohaline conveyor normally circulates ocean water around the planet. Cold, salty ocean water sinks and pulls warmer fresh surface water in to replace the sinking water. This sets up a deep-sea current that circulates water round the planet. If the belt shuts down, the northern hemisphere abruptly cools while the southern hemisphere warms.

Paleoclimate records from Greenland ice cores show that the conveyor belt shut down near the end of the last ice age. The ocean circulation stops when higher water temperatures and the addition of more freshwater cause the salinity and density of seawater to drop. A warming planet and melting freshwater could trigger another shut-down of the belt, throwing North America and Europe into frigid cold temperatures for hundreds of years.

While most scientists agree that what happened in the movie (overnight change) will never occur, U.S. citizens witnessed some dramatic weather changes in a matter of hours. Denver, Colo., experienced a temperature drop of 70 degrees in an 18-hour period. Winter Storm Elliott affected over two-thirds of our population and almost every state except the South Western area. There were record setting winds and cold temperatures in our region, blizzard conditions in the plain states and feet of snow in the New England area; even Florida broke some records for cold temperatures. Meteorologists say this storm will be a once in a generation storm.

So what caused Winter Storm Elliott? The northern polar vortex played a major role in the crushing cold that blanketed the North American continent. There are two polar vortices on our planet, one which spins around the North Pole and the other spins around the South Pole. We are dealing with the northern vortex which was first described in an article published in 1853. Normally, low-pressure cold air circulates counterclockwise and inward toward the North Pole. The polar jet stream (high-altitude high-speed wind currents) helps hold the vortex in place, much like an old-fashioned girdle held our bulges in place. However, a weakened polar jet stream causes tiny breaks in the “girdle” and allows the cold vortex to seep out of its circular orbit dipping southward. It is like someone opening the refrigerator door and the cold air seeps through your house.

It is thought that climate change is causing a destabilization of the polar jet stream. Scientists say that the Arctic region is warming faster than any other area on the globe, on average four times faster in the past forty years. As the polar air warms, the temperature differences between that air and mid-latitude air lessens. This causes a “wobble” in the jet stream, or weakening of the “girdle,” allowing the cold air to advance south.

This year’s 2022 Arctic Report Card, authored by 147 experts from 11 nations, tells the disturbing story of the effects of climate change on the Arctic. Some of the changes include: shrinking sea ice, warming atmospheric temperatures, and shorter periods of snow cover. These could all play a role in more frequent polar air intrusions into our region.

So far at least 50 deaths have been attributed to the storm, with at least 27 in New York State. More than 8,305 flights were canceled and millions of people spent Christmas day without power. The economic impact “will likely be in the billions.”

Scientists have been warning us that the time frame for mitigating climate change is quickly closing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in their 2022 report, “The dangers of climate change are mounting so rapidly that they could soon overwhelm the ability of both nature and humanity to adapt, creating a harrowing future in which floods, fires and famine displace millions, species disappear and the planet is irreversibly damaged.”

Winter Storm Elliott proved to be an example of how we humans cannot successfully adapt to abrupt changes in our weather, even though we have access to advance technology. As climate changes occur more often and at a faster rate, we find that adapting to these changes will become that much harder and more expensive. Even more alarming is the fact that many of the species we share the planet with will not be able to adapt but will instead succumb to extinction.

We are faced with the realization that when it comes to climate change, the phrase “pay me now or pay me later” rings true.


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.