The Meaning of Snow, is it Climate Change?

aSleds. Igloos. Wintry walks. Hats and shovels. Boards and skis strapped to feet. Whitened streets. Frozen canals. #snowday. As the UK thaws after being blasted by ‘The Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma, my social media feed is returning to normal after being blanketed with the white stuff for several consecutive days. Meanwhile, the east coast of the USA is hit by another ferocious wintry storm, just days after a “bomb cyclone” dumped rain and snow on the region ensuing flooding.

Snow Day in Edinburgh. Sledding enthusiasts on Arthur’s Seat. Photos Courtesy of Amelia Calvert.

With each extreme weather event around the globe, media commentary often broaches whether such events are proof of climate change or not. I find extreme weather events captivating. I wanted to understand the dynamics behind the latest snowy event in Europe. Could this event or others like it, be attributed to climate change? Hold on! Isn’t climate change about warming? And snow is… er…, cold?

Well firstly, climate change will play out differently around the world. Overall, we think there will be more extreme weather events (cyclones, droughts, high volume and intensity rainfall events). Some places will become dryer while others will get wetter.* It’s also important to distinguish the difference between weather and climate. Climate is the big picture, the birds eye view. It looks at long term weather patterns, occurring over long times scales (years, decades, centuries) and large areas (cities, regions, continents). Weather is location specific, what we experience day to day. It is something you feel, like a snowflake fluttering into your eyelid or rain soaking the washing you’ve hung outside to dry.


Flooding. More and heavier rainfall are expected in some regions due to climate change.

The Conversation explains the latest European weather patterns well. It turns out that the snowy weather was caused by warming, at the North Pole. Prior to the UK’s snowy weather, the arctic had been experiencing warmer than normal temperatures, some 30 degrees (C) warmer than average in places, with an unprecedented 61 hours above freezing at Cape Morris Jesup in Greenland. In the most northerly part of earth, that’s unheard of. This warming caused the direction and speed of the polar vortex (arctic winds) to change, resulting in changes over Scandinavia, drawing cold Siberian air across the UK. Even more fascinating is that this arctic warming event was linked to intense thunderstorms in the faraway West Pacific Ocean in January, creating a ripple effect in the atmosphere.


Snow near Heriot, Scottish Borders. Photo courtesy of Leigh Bradley.

It is difficult to attribute ‘The Beast from the East’ or other single unseasonable weather events to climate change. This snow event was caused by warming, but further exploration of long term data will be needed to link it to climate change. However, this research has reinforced the idea of connection for me. Our day-to-day existence, our lifestyles, the types of plants and animals that inhabit each corner of the globe, are all affected by weather, controlled by larger climate systems. Weather events occurring in distant places can trigger events that may cause weather events near you. Nothing occurs in isolation. As we all interact daily with nature and our surroundings, no one will be totally disconnected from climate change impacts either.

* I recommend Danny Chivers book The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change which simply and concisely explains the science, causes, consequences and solutions to climate change.

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