Is climate change to blame for Oklahoma’s severe winter storm? The answer is complicated
Oklahoma saw its worst winter storm in decades last week, but don’t go blaming climate change for the bitter cold and heavy snow just yet.
Climate change is a phenomenon studied on a global scale over the course of decades.
Two University of Oklahoma professors said that makes it nearly impossible to label a singular weather event, even one that brings subzero temperatures to a large swath of the United States, a result of climate change.
“The data does not support being able to attribute what’s going on now to climate change,” said Kevin Kloesel, director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.
Climate scientists look for patterns, and if historic winter storms begin to happen more frequently, that could be a sign of climate change, the OU meteorologist said in a phone interview Thursday after a second storm hit the state within a matter of days.
Extreme weather conditions in Oklahoma may seem significant to the state’s residents, but are minuscule in comparison to the global climate picture, said Renee McPherson, director of the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center. Even a large weather event across the country is small in comparison because the continental U.S. makes up only about 3% of the globe’s surface area.
Climate scientists are also looking beyond one severe summer or winter event, said McPherson, who is an associate professor of geography and environmental sustainability at OU.
“We can look at events and say that those are consistent with what we would expect with a warming globe, but we wouldn’t point to an event and say, ‘that’s the proof that climate change is happening or not happening,’” she said.
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That's not to say climate change isn't occurring at all. Climate change is persistent and influences the weather every day, she said.
Rising global temperatures alter the jet stream — air currents that circulate in the atmosphere — and the weather. The jet stream helps to steer low-pressure systems, which is where most weather comes from.
Changes in the jet stream played a role in bringing winter weather that would typically be found in northern Canada or the Arctic Circle down to the central U.S. in the most recent bout of winter storms, McPherson said.
Extreme winter weather can be indicative of climate change just as much as extreme heat.
By referring to changing weather patterns as "global warming" for so long, scientists oversimplified what's happening to the earth's climate, Kloesel said. That has led to lasting misconceptions and misinformation about climate change, he said.
The term "global warming" was first coined in 1975 by a U.S. scientist. The phrase become more well-known in the 2000s, in part, due to former presidential candidate Al Gore's climate change documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
"We, the meteorological scientists, the climatologists, have to figure out a way to do a better job of educating about climate change," Kloesel said. "Using the words 'global warming,' everybody keyed in on both words. Well, not every place on the planet is warming at the same rate. Some places have actually cooled a little bit."
People also affect the environment more than most would like to admit, he said.
Lake Hefner and Lake Overholser saw lake-effect snow, a meteorological phenomenon in which bodies of water can add to snowfall, during the most recent winter storm. Both are man-made lakes, Kloesel said.
Preparing for a changing climate
The big takeaway from this storm is that Oklahoma needs to better prepare for all kinds weather extremes, Kloesel said.
Like having car insurance in case you get into a wreck, the state needs to prepare more than it already does for severe tornadoes, extreme heat in the summertime and extreme cold in the wintertime, he said.
Damage from the most recent storm will be extensive and costly, whether it's the loss of human life or the strain inflicted upon Oklahoma's infrastructure, Kloesel said. The best thing Oklahoma can do is prepare for a similar severe winter storm to happen again, whether it's in a year, five years or 10 years.
After the snow melts and it's once again sunny and warm, it would be naive for Oklahomans to act like a similar storm is never going to hit the Sooner State again, he said.
"If this is something that does start to occur more often going forward, that's going to get really expensive if we're not prepared to deal with that," Kloese said. "So, we need to learn our lessons from this weather event and we have to have the expectation that it's going to happen again."
Reporter Carmen Forman covers state government and politics for The Oklahoman. Send story tips to email@example.com or connect on Twitter with @CarmenMForman. Support her work, and the work of other Oklahoman journalists, by purchasing a print or digital subscription today at oklahoman.com/subscribe.