Climate change explainer: Earth is warming but winters could get worse -- here’s why

Fourth edition of ‘In This Climate’ newsletter

Freezing pipe
Freezing pipe (Pixabay)

This article was first published in the “In This Climate” Newsletter, a periodical newsletter looking at the impact of climate change in Michigan. Sign up for it here, or by using the form at the bottom of the article below.


Welcome back to the In This Climate Newsletter! I’m Ken. I launched this newsletter to bring climate change to the neighborhood level. How is climate change impacting Michigan right now -- and how will it impact Michigan in the future? What can we do about it?

We’ll spend some time looking at the issues -- and we’ll seek out solutions. We’ll talk to the experts. We’ll educate ourselves along the way. If this sounds like something you’re interested in, welcome to the climate club! If not, feel free to manage your newsletter subscriptions here.

  • If you missed our first three newsletters, on the biggest climate impacts right now, what the future could look like without action, and what we can do about it, catch up right here.

Today, you’ll hear from one of the country’s top meteorologists -- Local 4′s Paul Gross. He has studied weather and climate for decades, and has been reporting on climate change since the early 1990s (before it was on other meteorologist’s radar). He’s our go-to guy to help understand the science behind the weather. Paul is one of only six meteorologists in the world ever to be named an AMS Fellow, Certified Broadcast Meteorologist, and Certified Consulting Meteorologist, and is recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in explaining the scientific truth about global warming without any political bias.

After the winter chaos across the south, specifically Texas, last week, I asked Paul to help us understand -- if the Earth is warming up, why are winters getting more dangerous?

🌨️ Warming and winter’s wackiness

The science is settled on one aspect of climate change: humans have changed the composition of our planet’s atmosphere, and those changes have initiated an unusual warming of Earth’s climate. How that warming affects the actual weather you and I experience is becoming apparent, although finer details obviously are yet to be determined. But is global warming changing our winters? The answer is rather intriguing!

It may surprise you to know that winters here in the Great Lakes State are warming faster than the other three seasons.

Seasonal warming in Michigan. (Climate Central)

Is that good news or bad news? Both, actually. Remember as a kid when it seemed as if we’d get at least one harsh Arctic blast a winter? Those Arctic blasts kill off some of the pests we deal with every summer, such as ticks. The warmer the winter, the higher number of ticks that survive.

So that’s bad news. But warmer winters also mean lower heating costs, which is good news. While global warming is decreasing the number of extreme cold events, the ones that do occur could be worse, as I’ll explain below.

Snow, snow, snow

Another impact of warmer winters is on snow. I suppose it’s obvious to state that we tend to get less snow and more rain and ice in a warmer winter…that’s not good if you’re a winter enthusiast and love hitting the slopes, doing some sledding, or just getting out and building a good ‘ol snowman. However, the warming climate is causing more and more ocean water to evaporate into the atmosphere, and that moisture is what winter storms use to generate snow.

The result? Snowstorms are dropping more snow! So, in those winters where the storm track is close to us, we are getting more snow than we used to. In fact, five of Detroit’s top-ten snowiest winters have occurred since 2004 and, not only have six of Detroit’s top-ten snowiest Februaries occurred since 2008, our current month of February is very close to cracking the top ten!

Jet stream and Arctic blasts

Global warming is also having a profound impact on the jet stream, which is likewise significantly influencing our weather. Before explaining why, allow me to first explain that the jet stream is a snake-like band of strongest wind aloft that meanders around the planet. It’s the dividing line between polar airmasses to the north and milder airmasses to the south, and is also the dominant storm track. In the summer, the jet remains generally well north of the border in Canada. In the winter, it’s generally positioned across the northern half of the United States.

The jet stream exists because of the big temperature difference between the lower latitudes and higher latitudes. And therein lies the problem: one of the earliest climate change predictions was that the Arctic would warm proportionately faster than areas farther south, and that’s exactly what’s happening. So, as the Arctic warms, there’s a lower temperature gradient…and that periodically results in a weaker jet stream.

When that happens, bigger peaks and dips form…and it’s those huge jet stream valleys that generate extreme weather…everything from massive winter storms to Arctic blasts to tornado outbreaks. So now you understand how the recent extreme Arctic outbreak across the nation’s midsection can still happen in a warming world.

I hope this article clarifies for you global warming’s impact on our winter weather. As I stated at the beginning, some of the ramifications are surprising!

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Thanks to Paul Gross for sharing his expert insights! You can follow Paul on Twitter, he’s one of the best follows, especially if you’re a weather and/or science geek.


♨️ Hot reads

  • Michigan power explainer: How does Michigan get its power? Unlike Texas, Michigan does not operate on its own, independent power grid. It is part of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) grid, but wait -- it gets more complicated. Read more on this here.
  • US rejoins Paris agreement: World leaders welcomed the United States’ official return to the Paris climate accord Friday, but politically trickier steps lie just ahead for President Joe Biden, including setting a tough national target in coming months for cutting damaging fossil fuel emissions. More here.
  • UN report: Humans are making Earth a broken and increasingly unlivable planet through climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. So the world must make dramatic changes to society, economics and daily life, a new United Nations report says. More here.
  • Expect bad weather: Deadly weather will be hitting the U.S. more often, and America needs to get better at dealing with it, experts said as Texas and other states battled winter storms that blew past the worst-case planning of utilities, governments and millions of shivering residents. More here.

🧊 Break the ice

Thanks for reading the In This Climate Newsletter! I appreciate it. If you have a topic you’d like me to cover or just want to say hello, feel free to email me!

We have plenty of other newsletters at Local 4, covering all types of topics. Sign up for others here. Talk soon! - Ken Haddad (Email | Twitter)

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About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter.