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Climate Scientist: Record-Setting Mid-Atlantic Snowfall Linked to Global Warming

StoryFebruary 12, 2010
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As record snowfall crippled the mid-Atlantic this week, many Republicans used the blizzard-like conditions to argue that global warming is a hoax. We speak to climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who argues the extreme weather is in fact a part of global warming. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Federal workers in Washington, DC return to work today following a week of record snow in the Washington area. The district has received nearly fifty-six inches of snow this season, the most since record-keeping began over 125 years ago. Baltimore and Philadelphia have also received record amounts of snow this year.

Many Republicans have used the recent blizzards to argue that global warming is a hoax. If you’ve watched Fox News in recent days, you might have heard a report like this one.

    ERIC BOLLING: This is a Fox News alert. The snow keeps falling. You aren’t looking at Washington or Chicago or Minnesota. Want to take a guess? That’s Dallas, Texas. DFW Airport canceling hundreds of flights today. Dallas getting more than three inches of snow. It’s been a rough week for Al Gore and global warming alarmists everywhere. Washington dealing with the snowiest winter ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Fox News went on to report that the family of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma had built an igloo in Washington for Al Gore. Outside the igloo, the family held signs, reading "Honk if you [heart] global warming." Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina wrote on his Twitter page, quote, "It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries 'uncle.'"

But many of the nation’s climate scientists say the extreme weather in Washington should not be so surprising. A recent study by the US Global Change Research Program found the amount of very heavy precipitation on the Eastern seaboard from Washington, DC to Maine rose by 67 percent between 1958 and 2007.

To talk more about the science behind extreme weather, we’re joined now by Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Brenda. Can you respond to what Fox News is contending, what Republicans like Senator Inhofe is saying, that this proves, the snow proves, that global warming is a hoax?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: In essence, you would be ignoring the decades of research, of science, that proves that in places that typically get rain, or if it happens to be a cold time of year, it falls as snow, that we’ve seen an increase in the intensity of the absolute heaviest downpours or, if it’s a cold time of year, blizzards.

As you mentioned, the Eastern seaboard, the New England region, from Washington, DC all the way up to Maine, that’s had a marked increase over the past few decades of about 67 percent. The Midwest has seen over a 30 percent increase. And what we see in the Midwest is a Great Lake-effect snows, because we’ve seen a decrease by 30 percent since over fifty years of the ice covering the Great Lakes, and so that gives a lot of moisture to the atmosphere. And when we get these Arctic blasts coming down, penetrating deep into the United States all the way down to Texas — it’s winter. We should expect cold blasts. And that means that when it rains and it’s cold, it’s going to fall as snow. It’s not surprising at all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the United States, of course, is only — the land mass is only a small percentage of the total land mass on the earth. What is happening in other parts of the earth at this time?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: You bring up a really critical point. If we were to base our understanding just solely on the United States, which, as you say, is about two percent of the surface of the earth, we would have — it would be like watching a football game and watching only two percent of the field, maybe from the forty-eight line to the fifty line, the entire game and trying to figure out what’s going on. Whereas with scientific techniques, we could see what’s happening all around the world. It’s kind of like looking at a large-format TV of the entire football field. And what that tells us is that this decade, we just completed the hottest decade since accurate records have been kept worldwide in the 1880s. So we’ve just completed the hottest decade around the world. So, even though we’ve had some cold snaps in the United States and parts of Japan, the rest of the world is quite hot, and the oceans have reached their hottest records ever. So global warming is very real, and it’s here.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean, Dr. Ekwurzel? Where will this lead?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: What happens is, if we continue to release heat-trapping emissions from our cars, from power plants that burn fossil fuel, then we will only accelerate the warming, and we can bring more weather extremes to places that have typically rain and snow. Parts of the United States, such as the Southwest, they’re drying out. We have — overall, global warming is a situation where, in general, all outs being equal, the wet places are getting wetter, and the dry places are getting drier. We’ve seen an increase of aridification. The subtropics are drying out, and higher latitudes are getting wetter. And so, overall, the extremes are what matter to people, because that’s when you have to dig yourself out of snow. You have people that are having weather-related fatalities. We’re having people who are not able to raise money with their businesses being shut down. And that’s not good when — in a — have a downturn in the economy, when we have to have increased snow removal costs. Or, if it’s a spring flood, you have to have replacement costs for roads that are washed out, bridges that may collapse. All these things are something that if we don’t plan our infrastructure and increase our understanding of climate change impacts in the United States, then it will be more costly to not take the factor of climate change into consideration.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, many of the commentators on Fox News and some of the other conservative talk show hosts in the country have made a great deal in recent months about some of the errors in citations of reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It seems to have even had an impact on public opinion in the United States, if not — certainly not in the rest of the world, over how the public regards climate change. Could you talk about those errors and how the fallout from that controversy has continued to develop?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Well, it’s important to remember that there were scientists that caught these situations in the IPCC and have pointed out the changes, and the IPCC is fixing these errors and alerting the world. And it is a very transparent process, so you see all the comments, all the review comments. And what you see is it’s a voluntary effort by scientists around the world to try to distill the latest science so that policymakers understand what’s going on.

And even if you threw out the IPCC report, you still would be left with thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles talking about climate change. The pace of climate change since the IPCC report has been published is actually showing more urgent changes than we had seen in the IPCC. And so, people should be paying attention to that and the large group of scientists around the world who are working on this, as well as engineers and people who are trying to find solutions to reduce heat-trapping emissions so we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change. That’s where the fact and reality is, even despite all the changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ekwurzel, I wanted to get your response to this recent controversy over the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that won the Nobel Prize a while ago. The panel has been criticized, as you said, in recent months after some of these errors were found in the UN report, in one case the report erroneously projecting that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035. Well, the head of the UN panel, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, has rejected calls for him to resign. This is what he says.

    RAJENDRA PACHAURI: I have no intentions of resigning from my position. I was elected by acclamation by all the countries of the world. And I have a task. I have got to complete the fifth assessment report, and I shall do it and make sure that we come up with a robust report. We certainly had a very robust, a very credible fourth assessment report. Unfortunately, there’s been this error in respect to Himalayan glaciers, but that, in no way, detracts from the value of the report and the impact that it has had.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Pachauri. Dr. Ekwurzel, your response?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Well, the IPCC does not rest on just one individual. It’s many, many people who are part of the process. And it’s a — they have 90,000 review comments they have to deal with and many, many scientists and reviewers involved in the process.

Going forward, we would expect that the IPCC will be even stronger, going forward, because the IPCC is learning from this that perhaps the review process has to be improved, and also we have to have more of the lead authors from the different working groups involved with other parts of the report. Many times it may be what we call “stove typing,” a little bit too much going on. And so, these are good signs, because, going forward, the next fifth assessment report will be even stronger than prior reports, which has been the trajectory with all the IPCC reports. They keep getting better and better with each assessment. And to expect it to be perfect would be unreasonable.

AMY GOODMAN: Haiti has just been buffeted by a series of natural catastrophes. I mean, now it’s moving into the rainy season. Who knows how catastrophic that will be, following the earthquake? Do earthquakes have anything to do with global warming?

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Earthquakes have nothing to do with global warming. It has to do with the deep processes within the earth that move the molten lava and continents slip above it, and you have collisions of continents creating earthquakes. And also you can have volcanic activity creating earthquakes.

But in this case, you have an earthquake, and that creates situations that will set up — some earthquakes can create tsunamis, which also are not related to global warming. So we can’t conflate all natural disasters and blame everything on global warming. But the fact that now we’re moving into the rainy season, we do know that the earth’s atmosphere is warming up, and we can hold more water vapor than we could decades ago in the earth atmosphere — we see more water vapor — so when rainstorms happen, they have more access to the water vapor to convert into rain that can fall on people’s heads. And so, again, the intensity of the rain and snow is something that is extreme, it’s increasing, an unfortunate consequence of global warming. And in places where you have other multiple stresses, such as from other unrelated climate impacts, coming together, and then you throw a climate change impact on top, that compared to decades ago you might have more intense weather, that could be something that tumbles some of the hotspots around the world, which we call — multiple factors and climate change maybe tipped the balance, or climate change is there and another factor may be tipping the balance. So these are vulnerable spots around the world that we all have to pay attention to and try to help alleviate, especially when resources are thin in places that perhaps are most vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN: Brenda Ekwurzel, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Dr. Ekwurzel is a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. For our two weeks of coverage of the climate change summit that took place in Copenhagen in December, where we spoke with experts all over the world, you can go to our website at

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