From Hottest October to Coldest November, Is Climate Change Behind the Extreme Weather?

November 20, 2014


Eric Holthaus

meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate. His most recent article is "Global Warming Is Probably Boosting Lake-Effect Snows."

Record cold temperatures have been recorded across the country this week. The most extreme weather is hitting western New York, where at least seven people have died. At least six feet of snow has already fallen on parts of Buffalo, and another two to three feet is expected today. Tuesday was the coldest November morning in the country since 1976. Temperatures dropped below freezing in every state including parts of Hawaii on Tuesday and Wednesday. This comes just days after NASA reported last month was the warmest October on record. We look at the link between extreme weather and climate change with Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to extreme weather. Last week, the news was about the record heat. According to NASA, last month was the warmest October ever recorded across the globe. This week, much of the United States is experiencing record cold. Tuesday was the coldest November morning in the country since 1976. Temperatures dropped below freezing in every state including parts of Hawaii on Tuesday and Wednesday. The most extreme weather is hitting the western New York city of Buffalo.

CNN REPORTER: Buffaloans are used to snow, but this storm dumped over five feet in some spots, almost an entire season’s snowfall in 24 hours. And more is on the way.

WIVB REPORTER: And it’s just a mess here in South Buffalo here on South Park and 10th. You can see there’s a big rig behind me and dozens of cars that have been stranded for more than a day.

GINGER ZEE: Yeah, take a look at this: five feet of snow in 36 hours in upstate New York. That was so much weight, it broke the door down—boom!

BRIAN WILLIAMS: It’s a weather emergency making news, a bitterly cold night in store for most people in this country. Officially as of this morning, temperatures were below freezing at least somewhere in all 50 states. And yes, that includes Hawaii.

AMY GOODMAN: In Buffalo, New York, six to seven feet of snow; another two to three feet could fall today in areas that have already received massive amounts, unprecedented. At least seven deaths in western New York have been blamed so far on the snow.

To talk more about this week’s extreme weather, we’re joined by Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate. His most recent post is called "Global Warming Is Probably Boosting Lake-Effect Snows."

Eric, welcome to Democracy Now! How?

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Hi, thanks. Well, the science says that this is another example of extreme weather and how climate change is affecting it. In this case, the Great Lakes are, since I think the year—since the 1970s, have decreased their ice cover by about 70 percent. So, all that extra open water in the wintertime is giving more chance for things like lake-effect snow to form.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain actually what’s happening across the country, and particularly in western New York, upstate in Buffalo? How is this happening, especially in areas where you can have seven feet of snow, and right next door, two inches?

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Sure, yeah. Well, lake-effect snow is a very intense, narrow band that forms off the lake. If you get a persistent wind over warm water with cold air above, that makes it an extremely unstable atmosphere. And what happens is it turns into basically a thunderstorm of snow, and it falls right over that same area for hours and hours on end. And that’s what happened this week.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how weather relates to climate change right now.

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Sure. Well, climate change is boosting the amount of energy that’s available in the atmosphere, in general, by heating the atmosphere, retrapping the sun’s incoming energy, and then that kind of gives an extra boost into these kind of weather systems. So when you’re talking about—when you’re talking about drought or extreme precipitation, in general, what climate change will do will make the wet days wetter, and it will make the dry periods more dry. So, again, this lake-effect snow is one example of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the backlash against what you’re writing? You faced this right-wing backlash on Twitter after your article came out in Slate on Wednesday. One user tweeted, "Got trapped in Buffalo by a blizzard in the late 70s. Back then it was evidence of global cooling." Another said, "Lake-effect snow is new?? You are a fool and a tool." This isn’t the first time you’ve faced criticism from the right wing for speaking out about climate change. Last year, you wrote about how the latest U.N. climate report brought you to tears and inspired you to resolve to give up air travel. This was how Greg Gutfeld of Fox News reacted.

GREG GUTFELD: The guy’s a kook. Someone should tell him that planes are better than driving, as their nitrous oxide causes cooling by ridding methane in the air. But hey, he says he’s the expert. In what? Beta mail sniveling?

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Holthaus, why do you think your scientific conclusions have inspired such a backlash?

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Well, I think the real only reason to deny the changes that are happening in the atmosphere right now because of humans is political at this point. So, people are motivated by a worldview that doesn’t allow for things like humans changing the weather. So, that’s how I explain it, personally.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, the weather is blanketing the airwaves, to say the least—as it should be, because people are—it is so extreme, what is taking place across the country—in Hawaii, below freezing. You know, in Buffalo, not only did they face seven feet of snow in some areas, but two to three feet more possibly coming today, and then flooding when it warms over the weekend. They don’t even have the equipment that can move the snow.

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Sure, yeah, I think the football team, the Buffalo Bills, called for volunteers yesterday to scoop out the stadium, because I think one of my fellow meteorologists calculated that it would be something like eight-person years of time that it would take to scoop out that snow, like 200,000 tons of snow or something, that fell in that stadium.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet we’re on target for being the warmest, the hottest year on record. Is that right? Still?

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Yes, it’s still accurate. We have—six of the last 10 months have been the warmest such month on record. I’m going back to the late 1800s, so—but we have evidence from tree rings and from ice cores going back several thousand years that show that it’s been—this is the warmest year in that entire stretch of time. So, just because we have a snowstorm here, it does not—definitely does not mean that climate change is somehow not happening.

AMY GOODMAN: All four seasons were experienced in one week, you write in a recent post?

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Yeah. Well, it felt that way, definitely. So, we’re right in the middle of fall. So, on the East Coast, in New York, in New York City, was almost peak fall time this weekend, and we had a tornado outbreak in the Southeast, as that snowstorm moved to the Northeast. And on the West Coast, we’re having a Santa Ana wind event, which it tends to boost the chances of wildfire. And in southern Florida, there were record highs at the same time record lows were being felt in the Midwest. So, it was definitely quite an extreme week this week as far as weather.

AMY GOODMAN: And to those who say record cold makes a mockery of global warming?

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Sure, well, again, you have to remember that we’re just one patch of land on this huge planet. So, even though the United States is cold right now, actually, on Tuesday, the same day that all 50 states hit a freezing temperature, the Northern Hemisphere as a whole was about almost a full degree Celsius above normal. So, just because the cold pattern is happening here doesn’t mean it’s happening everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it would be accurate if the meteorologists on television, instead of just flashing the two words "severe weather" or "extreme weather," also flashed "climate change" or "global warming"? How do you think that would affect people’s perceptions of what we could do?

ERIC HOLTHAUS: Well, I think it would be more scientifically accurate. I mean, I think, like I said earlier, the only reason not to talk about climate change anymore is, I think, political. So, to be true to the science, we can find a link for extreme weather events almost all around the country or around the world right now. The amount that it’s measurable is somewhat up for debate. So, for example, for this lake-effect snow, snow seasons in western New York are pretty variable, so it’s really hard to pull out that pattern or that signal of global warming. But the science has shown that it’s there. So, I think to talk about the science in a way that reflects how climate change is affecting weather patterns, I think that’s the honest path, as far as science.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Holthaus, I want to thank you for being with us, speaking to us from Viroqua, Wisconsin. Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate. We’ll link to your most recent post, "Global Warming Is Probably Boosting Lake-Effect Snows." We’ll link to it at

When we come back, the story of a—well, he started as a young man, at the age of 18—how he went to jail for taking the tools his father bequeathed him after his dad died. How is it possible that 34 years later he remains in jail—his name is Mark DeFriest in Florida—27 of those 34 years in solitary? Stay with us.

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