Piling On: More New Research Shows No Link Between “Polar Vortex” and Global Warming

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


This is getting embarrassing.

Another scientific paper has just been published that again finds no association between Arctic sea ice loss and extreme cold and wintery conditions across the U.S.—White House Science Advisor John Holdren’s favorite mechanism for tying last winter’s persistent “polar vortex” over the eastern US to anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

We wonder just what it will take for the White House to publicly admit that it was grossly wrong. At the very least, it needs to disavow a widely-disseminated YouTube video featuring Holdren explaining the link between last winter’s polar vortex and human-caused climate change. There is no such link. Of course, this won’t happen, as Holdren was simply engaging in a publicity stunt relying on tenuous science to scare up support for President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  The President is hell-bent on an endless string of executive actions aimed at manipulating the energy market and reducing our energy choices along the way.

As we reported when the video was first released last January, the science linking human-caused climate change to the southward excursions of the polar vortex was a stretch to begin with. It was then dealt a major blow by a study led by Colorado State climate researcher Elizabeth Barnes that was coincidentally published a few days after Holdren’s YouTube video. Barnes’s found that natural variability dominates the observed record, making it impossible to detect any human-caused global warming signal even if one were to exist in the vortex data (which there is no proof of). Shortly after that, a collection of very prominent climate scientists specializing in research into atmospheric circulation patterns wrote a letter to a prominent journal stating that drawing the type of connection that Holdren did was not scientifically advisable

Spurred by all of this, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) sent a petition to the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) to force Holdren issue a correction under the terms of the Data Quality Act. According to CEI, “OSTP guidelines require the agency to correct any published information that does not meet ‘basic standards of quality, including objectivity, utility, and integrity.’”

Holdren and the White House have been unmoved.

Now comes this: a brand new study, led by Thomas Ballinger of Kent State University, which directly examined the size and magnitude of the 2014 “polar vortex” event and found it to be not particularly unusual.  Yes, it was a significant event ushering a lot of really cold air southward over the eastern 2/3rds of the U.S. and bringing with it all sorts of winter misery, but it wasn’t historically unusual.  In fact, Ballinger’s team, found, in examining polar vortex behavior across North America since 1948, that the 2014 polar vortex excursion into the lower 48 ranked 6th in southerly extent and 7th in total area. The authors concluded that their analysis “revealed that the spatial features of the January 2014 [polar vortex over the U.S.] were not extreme relative to certain 1948-2013 Januaries.”

Ballinger and colleagues took their analysis one step further and examined the historical record to see if they could find a link between the loss of Arctic sea ice and an increase in polar vortex excursions into the U.S.—Holdren’s favored explanation for tying human actions into their own winter suffering.  Here is what they wrote:

While this [polar vortex] study solely examines January, a regional domain, and uses different data to quantify atmospheric circulation, the results presented here are not congruent with the large-scale flow changes suggested in those latter papers [linking Arctic sea ice loss to polar vortex behavior].

Sorry, John.

So with a large and growing body of scientists and scientific evidence aligning against Holdren’s explanation of things, it is high time for a recognition of this by the White House. But since they are no doubt too focused on pushing their new carbon dioxide emissions regulations to find the time to insure that their justification for the regulations are based in fact, we thought we’d help them out and draft a public announcement for them.  Here is what we have come up with:

From the White House:

We’d like to take this opportunity to correct something that we put forward regarding human-caused climate change and the polar vortex from this past winter.  In actuality, and as a collection of new science has shown, that linkage is much more tenuous that we stated, if it even exists at all. 

Our purpose for releasing that video and associated press material was to take advantage of an extreme weather event that was inconveniencing a large number of Americans. We wanted to use the opportunity to try to scare you into supporting our executive actions aimed at restricting carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to mitigate future climate change.  Admittedly, the science is much weaker than federal pronouncements like these make it out to be. But if we were forthcoming with all the data and the complete story that it told, there would be even less support for the Climate Action Plan than currently exists. And since we’re coming clean about things, we’ll go ahead and admit that we realize the regulations forwarded under the Climate Action Plan, most notably the soon-to-be-announced sweeping carbon dioxide emissions restrictions on existing power plants, will have no measureable impact on the very thing that they aim to achieve—mitigating climate change—unless, by eliminating coal-fired electricity generation, there is a technological miracle that no one can anticipate or forecast.  While waiting, you’ll just have to live with more expensive electricity.

We really aren’t very concerned about this because one of the confident predictions from government scientists is that winters should warm preferentially to summers. So you won’t need as much electricity to heat your house.  If we were right about the polar vortex and very cold temperatures in the East, that would be too bad, but we were wrong. 

So, next time you hear a federal pronouncement about climate change and extreme weather (likely coming sometime this summer when it gets hot), note that we are largely making it up and that the larger body of science, economics, and statistics, generally doesn’t support our wild assertions.

We’ll let you know when our phone rings.

References:

Ballinger, T., M.J. Allen, and R.V. Rohli, 2014. Spatiotemporal analysis of the January Northern Hemisphere circumpolar vortex over the contiguous United States. Geophysical Research Letters,doi:10.1002/2014GL060285.

Barnes, E., et al., 2014. Exploring recent trends in Northern Hemisphere blocking. Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2013GL058745.