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How Much Is The Weather In Texas Due To Climate Change?


People watching this week's weather include Marshall Shepherd, who is director of the Atmospheric Studies Program (ph) at the University of Georgia. Professor Shepherd, welcome back to the program.

JAMES MARSHALL SHEPHERD: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: I just want to start with the obvious. We have really, really cold weather in a region that does not normally expect it. Can we connect that to climate change?

SHEPHERD: Yeah, that question always gets asked. But I always start the answer to that question with a reminder that it is winter and it is February.


SHEPHERD: And so we can get cold outbreaks naturally. This is a case where that word, the polar vortex, has resurfaced. Typically, it's sort of keeping that cold air up in the Arctic. But occasionally it can be breached or weakened, and you get these disruptions in the polar vortex. And then you can get this cold, dense air to ooze down into the lower 48. That's what we're seeing.

There is some evidence in the science literature that these disruptions will happen more frequently and so that we may see more of these types of events, but it would be sort of scientifically irresponsible to link this specific event to climate change. But we know that there may be a connection going forward with these types of events.

INSKEEP: Appreciate the frankness there. There has been some research suggesting that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, which might change the kinds of air that come down to the United States. Does that seem to be happening?

SHEPHERD: Yeah, and that's what I was alluding to with this disruption of the polar vortex. There's something called Arctic amplification whereby the Arctic region's warming a bit more intense than we are down in the lower 48. And there are science papers that suggest that that causes a much wavier jet stream pattern with more high amplitude waves, if you think back to high school physics. And so we get these really cold events, but we also get these really warm events during the warm season, as well.

So this isn't an unprecedented cold. We've seen it before. But as my colleague Judah Cohen has often talked about, these things used to happen less frequently. But it seems that they're happening yearly now, which is something we're keeping an eye on.

INSKEEP: Seems to be happening more frequently. And I just want to underline another thing. Blindingly obvious, but sometimes when it's supercold, you get an Internet troll saying something about everybody says it's global warming; look how cold it is. Climate change means extreme weather - right? - not just warm weather.

SHEPHERD: Well, I often say weather is your mood, and climate is your personality. Your mood today doesn't tell me anything about your overall personality, and nor does a day of cold weather or hot weather, for that matter, or a week of it. So that's very sort of poor framing that we do get often on Twitter and in various places. When I see someone saying that, it clearly sort of illustrates that that person doesn't understand perhaps the difference between weather and climate. And the other thing I would say is because our winters have been so warm as our climate changes, when we do get extreme cold weather, it feels that much worse because we don't experience the extreme cold as much as we used to.

INSKEEP: So suppose somebody, an official from Texas, called you up and asked for advice and said, you know, we're upgrading the infrastructure. We're rebuilding the infrastructure; we don't want an experience like this week to happen again. And of course, because we're doing infrastructure, we want to think 20 years ahead, 30 years ahead, 50 years ahead. What kind of advice would you give Texas?

SHEPHERD: Well, you know, I'm an atmospheric scientist, so I really don't think as much about the resiliency in infrastructure. But what I would say is this - first of all, let's kill the sort of misinformation out there on renewable energy and wind farms because it's clear that that's not the sole issue here. Wind farms operate in much colder and icier places than Texas. In fact, I'm reading that it was a combination of various things involving natural gas, wind and resilience planning. So what I would say is that we need to move from being a reactive society on these extreme compound weather events to more proactive.

What I often say these days is, hope or waiting and seeing is no longer an acceptable weather risk mitigation plan. Our weather models are good enough that we can plan ahead 10 days ahead, months ahead. And so I would ask these power companies to build in more resiliency in the short term and long term because we can pretty much tell you what's going to happen now from a weather perspective.

INSKEEP: Texas did have some advance warning. And one question is why they were not able to take advantage of it. And I'm just going to note, also, we are reporting elsewhere in today's program just what you said, that Texas has had problems with every kind of energy source in this cold weather.

James Marshall Shepherd of the Atmospheric Science Program at the University of Georgia, thank you so much.

SHEPHERD: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF OATMELLO'S "GOOD NIGHT (FT. LATE ERA)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.