Q&A: Steve Vavrus says it's been a warm winter globally, despite Madison's weather

2014-03-09T06:00:00Z Q&A: Steve Vavrus says it's been a warm winter globally, despite Madison's weatherSTEVEN ELBOW | The Capital Times | selbow@madison.com madison.com

Since early December, Madison's weather outlook has been pretty bleak: a daily dose of brutal cold.

Local conservatives have found a silver lining. What better way to combat the scientific consensus that global warming is indeed occurring than to point out the window?

“THANKS TO #GlobalWarming, Madison experiences 11th COLDEST winter on record,” reads a sarcastic March 3 tweet from conservative radio host Vicki McKenna.

Steve Vavrus, a senior scientist with the UW Center for Climatic Research, concedes that it’s been a bear of a winter – around Wisconsin, anyway.

“Certainly if you live around here it’s the severity of the winter that’s on your mind,” he says. “But we really are the outliers. This has been a very warm winter, globally speaking.”

In fact, Vavrus is looking at the possibility that some of our local winter woes may be happening because of global warming.

Vavrus isn’t mired in the political back-and-forth over climate change. He mainly looks at the effects of a phenomenon that nearly every other credible scientist agrees is fact.

He agreed to spend a few minutes talking about his observations of this winter.

Capital Times: So in terms of cold, how much of an outlier is Wisconsin?

Steve Vavrus: If you interviewed folks in Alaska they’d be saying how incredibly warm this winter’s been. Or folks in Europe, how mild it’s been there. The most telling statistic I think in terms of global climate change is that December was the third warmest, globally, on record. January was the fourth warmest, globally, on record. We don’t have the numbers yet for February, but December and January at least were two of the warmest months on record, globally. So the fact that we here in Wisconsin have been shivering for three months shows what an outlier we’ve been in the big picture

Is the notorious polar vortex that’s been nipping at us for three months the result of global warming?

This is an idea that I’ve been working on, actually, with my colleague Jennifer Frances at Rutgers. We published a paper a couple of years ago that suggested that the faster warming of the arctic relative to the rest of the world could have some impacts, affecting atmospheric circulation and affecting the jet stream. And one of the ways that it might do so is by slowing the jet stream winds and producing more of a meandering circulation which would be favorable for more north-south transport of air. That would include transporting of cold arctic air to our area. So in that sense this winter is consistent with our idea, but we haven’t done enough analysis to know if the warming arctic this current winter is directly a factor.

I know some people who, if they have to go through this again, are going south. Is this the new normal?

Next winter we might be in the warm part and somebody else might be in the cold. This has happened in recent winters. Last winter Europe was really, really cold. And a couple of winters ago we were really, really warm. So there’s certainly a lot of year-to-year variability. But if the arctic is affecting the jet stream in ways that we think it probably is, then I would suspect that there’s going to be a tendency for more variability from winter to winter.

The Great Lakes have been frozen over way more than normal. How does that play in?

A couple of ways. One is that if you replace this relatively warm surface with cold ice cover then it’s much easier for the surface of the lake to get really, really cold. When it’s open water it can’t get below the freezing point. But once you get a sheet of ice on top then it can drop to just about the ambient air temperature. So that’s one way that areas near the lake can be colder when there’s a lot more ice cover than usual. And the other way is that by covering the warm, moist lake surface with ice, we’ve choked off the source of lake effect snowfall. And so normally when we get these cold air outbreaks, you’d expect places downstream of the Great Lakes to get dumped on with heavy snowfall, but if the lakes are frozen, that doesn’t happen.

Is this jet stream abnormality going to persist? That is, are we going to keep getting nailed with colder-than-usual air through the spring and summer?

There’s no reason to think, in my opinion, that a cold winter like we’ve had will necessarily translate into a cold spring. Certainly the beginning of March looks cold. We already are feeling it. But these atmospheric patterns can shift suddenly and dramatically. So nobody really knows what April, for instance, will look like. The one caveat is we have a lot of snow to melt off right now, so even if we start to get some warmer air moving into our area, a lot of the energy is going to be used to melt the snow cover first before it really rises to temperature. But once we lose the snow pack, which could certainly happen this month, then I think all bets are off. I don’t think that there’s too much persistence from one season to another.

Naysayers sometimes concede that global warming is occurring, but they deny that human activity plays a part.

We think it’s very likely that the majority of the warming trend is caused by humans. But it’s impossible for us to know what the global temperature would be, or what the temperature in Wisconsin would be, if it weren’t for the human-induced emissions. We can look at various things — look at past temperature records, look at climate models and so forth — and say that it’s very unlikely that this warming trend is completely natural. All we know is the fact that we’ve had something like 347 consecutive months above normal in global temperature going back to 1985.

Do you ever confront climate change deniers when you’re presenting your data?

There are a few outliers in my field, but they are very, very few. When I give scientific talks nobody questions the concept of global warming, greenhouse effect and so on. When I talk to the public it occasionally comes up. Occasionally if there’s an article published that has me quoted, if you look at the bottom — at the comments of readers — there are a few people who are obviously resistant to the idea of human-induced climate change.

There’s a lot of talk about tackling global warming, but greenhouse emissions continue to rise, correct?

Globally that’s true. There’s been some improvement in this country recently, in large part because of our shift toward natural gas rather than coal. But globally emissions continue to rise.

Right, because while we’ve been talking there’s probably been two coal-fired plants that have come online in China.

Yeah, that’s a big issue. We have made some progress in the U.S., but we’re still such a huge contributor per capita. China has emerged recently and India has increased, too. These are global problems that have to be tackled on a global scale.

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(16) Comments

    Report Abuse
    GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN - March 10, 2014 8:14 pm

    Cue the crickets.

    Report Abuse
    GOOD DOG HAPPY MAN - March 10, 2014 11:57 am


    I'd like to say that I expected better from you, but, I really don't. You are who you are.
    But, calling someone 'crazy" might not only be against @Madison.com user policy rules, but it's mean, nasty and intolerant, too. I might be offended and my feelings hurt.

    It may be all a game to you, but, one that lives in a glass house shouldn't 'stow thrones.' Using the term, 'planet-raping" when talking about your extreme environmental whackadoodlism should immediately disqualify you from any serious discussion with grown ups. I only hope you were kidding, mano, and didn't post that with a straight face.

    Even I'd be embarrassed.

    But in penance for your misdeeds, you should immediately rip off your "Question Authority" bumper-sticker, (by who's authority do ask someone to question it, anyway?) and replace it with one that says, "Obey". That is, if there's any more space left on the rear end of your vehicle that's not occupied by your deep thoughts. Have mercy on those unsuspecting motorists stopped at the lights at First and E. Wash behind you. "Obey" is more conforming to your left-wing lockstep liberalism.

    Shame on you and may God have mercy on your soul,


  3. 196ski
    Report Abuse
    196ski - March 10, 2014 10:46 am
    "I'm not quite so ready to throw in the towel."

    And I am not saying you should Richard. What you should do is ignore all arguments surrounding believers and deniers. It's a pointless discussion with no answers and always degenerates into silliness.
    If this is something you care about then you need to do some research on greenhouse gas emissions, the projected rate of increase and the effects on that rate of increase current green energy alternatives may have. It's eye opening. Pay particular attention to the way the United States is no longer capable of making meaningful impacts on GHG emissions.

    For example.
    "If China’s carbon usage keeps pace with its economic growth, the country’s carbon dioxide emissions will reach 8 gigatons a year by 2030, which is equal to the entire world’s CO2 production today." Science Policy Brief.
    Note, this does not include India which is on a similar path to China.
    Chinese and Indian economies are built around 7%+ GDP growth. They have to be or the civil unrest that would follow would topple or cripple their governments. They have no food stamp program, welfare, or the myriad of programs we have in the United States and other developed nations. If you don't work in China you don't eat, period. I have been there and I have seen it first hand. With India you are talking almost 40% of the worlds population vs our 4%.

    It is why the The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) calculations show that if the United States stopped 100% of our GHG emissions today. 100%. By the year 2100 there would be zero impact on the 3 degree rise in global temperatures that they predict. ZERO. In the big picture it makes the fight over things like windmill farms, solar panels and the KeystoneXL inconsequential. They are simply non-factors in climate change, and in the case of solar and wind and damage an economy that already is teetering close to slipping back into recession.

    If the United States was serious we would be putting more money into R&D, Fusion, building the new Gen III nuclear plants and leading the discussion on the carrying capacity of the planet.

    Do your homework and draw your own conclusions.

  4. Honorary Kentucky Colonel
    Report Abuse
    Honorary Kentucky Colonel - March 10, 2014 9:19 am
    "I'm not quite so ready to throw in the towel."

    If you would be so kind, I'm anxious to hear what you've done, what you're doing, and what you intend to do going forward.
  5. Honorary Kentucky Colonel
    Report Abuse
    Honorary Kentucky Colonel - March 10, 2014 9:15 am
    I try to elevate the discussion by submitting that there are many in the scientific community that reserve doubt and are skeptical (crazies in your eloquent parlance) about climate sensitivity Your response? a witheringly pompous insult; intriguing debate technique.

    There are those that seek to stifle, even eliminate what is arguably the most basic aspects of scientific inquiry; asking questions, testing hypotheses, and skepticism. The MSM has certainly done its part.


    Popular Technology has also compiled some 1350 peer-reviewed papers supporting skeptical arguments as well. Let's assume just one researcher submitted each paper; that's a lot of crazies, isn't it?


    Accepting one doesn't know as much as much as they think they know is a sign of intellectual confidence. Blundering along undaunted is nothing more than arrogance. And that, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, is more dangerous than ignorance.
  6. spooky tooth
    Report Abuse
    spooky tooth - March 10, 2014 8:32 am
    You can find web sites that tell us God created the universe in six days and the earth is six thousand years old. You can find web sites that tell us creationism is real and man and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time. Would gotch tell us there's no such thing as evolution and scientists are wrong when they estimate the universe at 14 billion years?

    You can find scientists that dispute global warming, but how many when you discount those somehow profiting by saying so.
  7. RichardSRussell
    Report Abuse
    RichardSRussell - March 09, 2014 10:04 pm
    denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance

    Those are the stages of grief for people who've actually lost something. You have moved right straight to acceptance without having yet lost a thing. I'm not quite so ready to throw in the towel.
  8. 196ski
    Report Abuse
    196ski - March 09, 2014 9:27 pm
    The climate is changing, we may be causing it, we may not be. It really doesn't matter because there is nothing we can do about it at this time. If and when we are able to replace our reliance on fossil fuels the CO2 levels will be in the 600 ppm range.

    It really isn't worth getting worked up over, if you believe, good for you and if you don't, well you might be right and I actually hope you are.

    I think anyone who cares about this needs to spend the time and understand, not the climate, but the sources for GHG's and the magnitude of this possible global problem. If you look at the numbers you quickly realize that there is no bandaid big enough to stem the flow of continued GHG emissions and their annual rate of increase.
  9. Cheezer
    Report Abuse
    Cheezer - March 09, 2014 8:22 pm

    It was cold. Get over it! Thank you!
  10. geo_
    Report Abuse
    geo_ - March 09, 2014 8:07 pm
    Dioron, who designed landing gear for the Apollo mission is now a climate scientist, wonder when he went back to school. He forgot to include the green house gases from methane released as the permafrost thawed in his model, He didn't mention the loss of albedo in his model, only the input from burning fossil fuels and their contribution and at what efficency?
  11. RichardSRussell
    Report Abuse
    RichardSRussell - March 09, 2014 7:58 pm
    Congratulations. Not only right on cue, but you hit your mark, too.
  12. geo_
    Report Abuse
    geo_ - March 09, 2014 5:13 pm
    Of course carbon emissions rising in other parts or the world. American manufacturers are using cheap coal for energy in their develping world factories, Ameican policy is looking to increase the export of coal and Koch Carbon ( the third brother) is exporting the waste product of tar sands oil production, Pet Coke a highly toxic carbon dioxide spewing fuel to other nations.
  13. Honorary Kentucky Colonel
    Report Abuse
    Honorary Kentucky Colonel - March 09, 2014 5:04 pm
    Crazies? It's painfully obvious some believe there's no place for skepticism in Scientific Inquiry.

    Galileo would have met this definition of "crazy."

    Dr. Timothy Ball, Dr. Roy Spencer, Dr. Patrick Michaels, Dr. Freeman Dyson, Dr. Roger A Pielke (Sr. & Jr.), Dr. James Lovelock, 40 ex-NASA employees (including 7 astronauts), etc., etc. make up a group of the most dangerous kind of crazies; the well-credentialed kind.

    "The Right Climate Stuff Research Team, a group of retired NASA Apollo scientists and engineers - the men who put Neil Armstrong on the moon - in a new report.

    "It's an embarrassment to those of us who put NASA's name on the map to have people like James Hansen popping off about global warming," says the project's leader Hal Doiron.

    "Doiron was one of 40 ex NASA employees - including seven astronauts - who wrote in April 2012 to NASA administrator Charles Bolden protesting about the organization's promotion of climate change alarmism, notably via its resident environmental activist James Hansen.

    "Doiron and his team now hope to set the record straight in a report called Bounding GHG Climate Sensitivity For Use In Regulatory Decisions.


    "Using calculations by George Stegemeier of the National Academy of Engineering, they estimated the total quantity of recoverable oil, gas and coal on the planet.

    "They then used 163 years of real world temperature data to calculate Transient Climate Sensitivity (ie how much the world will warm as a result of the burning of all the carbon dioxide in the fossil fuel). The figure they came up with 1.2 degrees C which is considerably lower than the wilder claims of the IPCC, whose reports have suggested it could be as high as 4 degrees C or more."

  14. adamman
    Report Abuse
    adamman - March 09, 2014 2:27 pm

    Eggo Verbose Vaporific seems to be MIA this fine day.
    So, at the risk of being presumptuous, I will take it upon myself to comment in his behalf:

    "There is no climate change, there never has been and there never will be!!!!!!!"
  15. In Medias Res
    Report Abuse
    In Medias Res - March 09, 2014 2:04 pm
    Agreed, RR. Unfortunately some people think that if it's cold here, it's cold everywhere. To them, the other 99% of the world is a vague abstraction. These are are same sort of people who think that if they are doing better economically, so is everyone else, and if you mention health care reform, their answer is "I have good insurance." Parochial, to put it kindly.
  16. RichardSRussell
    Report Abuse
    RichardSRussell - March 09, 2014 1:22 pm
    Oh, look. A measured, reasonable opinion from a well informed expert who's devoted his professional career to the subject.

    OK, cue the crazies.
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