Kids Connections- The Texas Snow Storms and Power Outages Relation to Climate Change
This blog is meant for younger audiences who would like to understand the connection of our country’s southern winter storms and resulting power outages in states like Texas to climate change. The basic idea is that the type of weather event that placed Texas in such extreme, rare and freezing conditions is one that was likely caused by climate change, and other types of extreme weather events and disasters have been and will continue to be caused by climate change.
To start, we should briefly understand what happened in Texas. Being a very southern state in the US, Texas rarely sees extremely cold, icy or snowy conditions, and even more rarely for long periods of time like in their recent massive winter storm. In early February 2021, Texas and lots of other parts of the southern US saw these unusual conditions, and due to many problems with Texas’s power grid, government and importantly unpreparedness for such historically new conditions, although not unpredictable, Texas among other states had big big problems with their power grid (what delivers people electricity, heat and power for other uses).
Because of these big troubles, many millions were left dangerously without power for days to weeks on end, and suffered through conditions that were below freezing temperatures and contaminated water ways as other systems such as water were also harmed by shutdowns. Sadly, some Texans and other Americans even died from trying to avoid the cold and powerless conditions.
This was all very sad and unfortunate, and can hopefully be better prepared for in the future in a variety of ways, but what does this all have to do with climate change? To answer this we have to look at the connection between the Polar Vortex event that caused this, and climate change. As well, we have to see the proven and strong connections between our changing climate and the increase of extreme weather events.
To understand what specifically happened to cause Texas’s winter storm we need to understand what a Polar Vortex is. Usually, at the top of the world in the Arctic regions there is a lot of very cold air circulating, called the Polar Vortex. This freezing air and conditions is usually held up top in those cold Arctic regions by something called the jet stream.
The jet stream is a series of wind currents that swirl around the Earth, and they play a large role in regulating the Earth’s weather and climate conditions. The northern jet stream- which usually holds the Polar Vortex’s air and conditions in place up north- is powered by complicated forces of cold in different parts of our air (or atmosphere) like the stratosphere.
When the jet stream is weaker and sees interruptions it can allow the very cold Arctic winter air and conditions to slip down through its path, and make their way into lower parts of the Earth, or ‘middle latitudes’. This includes places like the US, China or Europe. These middle parts of the Earth, such as Texas, usually do not see anything like these very cold conditions, and so when they do it can become a disaster. Regions that are used to warm all the time, and not terrible winter storms are left without the tools and power to protect themselves from the cold, and the needed experience in how to deal with the cold temperatures, ice, or snow. Even more complicated is the cold’s effects on power, water and other human systems which were heavily damaged in Texas.
So, understanding that the interruptions of the jet stream are what help cause these freak winter events in unusual places, why is the jet stream having problems? Importantly, the problems are occurring because of the weakening of the jet stream due to climate change.
A lot of ongoing research has shown that the fast global warming happening up in the Arctic, where the cold is coming from, is weakening the jet stream. Our jet stream is powered by cold forces in the atmosphere, but when the Arctic's air is warmed at fast paces this can disrupt the engine of cold air that normally powers the jet stream. This means the jet stream’s engine is weaker, and so its force is reduced.
Due to climate change and its global warming effects the entire Earth is getting hotter, but especially the Arctic regions. The science behind this is sound and proven, for our purposes we just need to understand that the heating taking place in usually cold regions is causing weird and unnatural heat forces, and lessening the Arctic’s usually cooling effects.
One big effect is the melting of Arctic ice, which usually reflects heat away from the Earth, but with hotter temperatures can melt and lessen that reflecting property- meaning more heat is kept on Earth. The loss of ice can cause big warming effects in the region, and play a large part in the type of heat disruptions the jet stream sees.
To summarize the overall trend- we know that human caused climate change and global warming, especially in polar regions, is powering processes like melting ice cover and air warming in places like the Arctic, which then leads to interferences with the polar jet stream; these interferences can weaken the stream which can result in extreme weather events like what happened in Texas.
Again, the science behind the theory that a warming Arctic causes jet stream disruptions that allow extreme cold weather events is developing. It is still being studied, and will continue to be. While there are many who have concluded this trend is true, there are still many trying to learn more. No matter what though, the facts about climate change heavily affecting the Arctic regions or increasing things like extreme weather are not up for debate.
Whether it is cold spikes or heat waves, droughts or snowstorms, wildfires or hurricanes- extreme weather events are happening more and more because of climate change. Not only this, they are happening in places and ways they did not used to. For many reasons climate change causes extreme weather events, and the basic science behind that varies- sometimes it may be because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture/water, or other times because changing temperatures affect weather or pressure systems in new ways.
What needs to be clear is climate change has and will continue to drive dangerous and costly extreme weather events. It will be a cost of money to people and governments, and also a possible cost of homes, property and lives. We need to stop climate change to stop the increase in extreme weather events!
I hope this blog post helped you understand more about how climate change relates to the Texas and other southern snowstorms of last month. Although the science can be complicated, the connections are not. Understanding these connections can help us be smarter and braver while facing a changing world and a changing climate.
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