Maybe It’s Cold Outside

Maybe It’s Cold Outside

Blizzards are predicted to become more intense in the face of climate change, despite shorter winters and rising global temperatures.


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Biology, Conservation, Earth Science, Climatology, Geography



The aptly named blizzard "Snowzilla" hit the Northeastern United States in January of 2016, causing great damage to the area.

Photograph by Joe Flood
The aptly named blizzard "Snowzilla" hit the Northeastern United States in January of 2016, causing great damage to the area.
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A blizzard is a dangerous type of winter storm. It is characterized by strong winds, snow and reduced visibility. Blizzards form when snow falls in windy conditions or when snow is lifted from the ground by strong winds. Some blizzards can cause whiteouts. It is impossible to tell the sky from the ground. Severe blizzards have become more common in the last few years. Many of them have hit the United States East Coast. One was so bad it was called "Snowzilla." The blizzards have broken snowfall records. Scientists think these storms will become more serious because of climate change.

Increase in Carbon Dioxide Raises Temperatures

Climate change is caused by human activities. Gas, coal, and oil are fossil fuels. When fossil fuels are burned, large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO₂) are released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It traps heat from the sun in the Earth's atmosphere. Greenhouse gases help keep the Earth warm enough to support life. However, too much of these gases in the atmosphere causes temperatures to rise. This is known as global warming. Average global temperatures have already risen in the last century. Action has to be taken to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases. If not, temperatures will continue to rise.

Greenhouse gases and global warming affect the climate. This is the long-term average of weather patterns. It is usually measured over a period of 30 years or more. Weather is the short-term events in the atmosphere. It is the day to day rainy or sunny forecasts.

Scientists say that climate change could make blizzards stronger. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Higher sea temperatures also put more water into the air. This moisture precipitates as rain in warm areas or snow in cold areas. More moisture in air results in storms that are stronger and come more often. So, blizzards will be stronger and occur more often where temperatures are still cold enough for snow.

Melting Ice Causes Arctic to Warm Up

Sea ice in the Arctic has been steadily melting. The ice usually reflects sunlight, but that light now gets absorbed by the ocean instead. The ocean gets warmer, which causes more ice to melt. This is a cycle that causes the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the world. Sunlight usually gets reflected by the ice. This changes weather patterns in other parts of the world.

The effects of global warming are also felt in the atmosphere. The jet stream is a fast-moving current of air. It circles the lowest region of the atmosphere. The jet stream affects weather in Europe and North America. It also depends on the temperature difference in the poles and tropics. It moves faster if there is a big difference in temperature north and south of the stream. As the Arctic warms, the temperatures become too similar. This slows the jet stream and makes it weave north and south instead of moving straight. It pulls Arctic air down to the south from the north. This causes unusually cold weather in some places. Changes to the jet stream can cause harsh cold weather events, including blizzard and polar vortex storms.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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