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updated 3/2/2009 3:17:48 PM ET 2009-03-02T20:17:48

For those who have endured this winter's frigid temperatures and today's heavy snowstorm in the Northeast, the concept of global warming may seem, well, almost wishful.

But climate is known to be variable — a cold winter, or a few strung together doesn't mean the planet is cooling. Still, according to a new study, global warming may have hit a speed bump and could go into hiding for decades.

Earth's climate continues to confound scientists. Following a 30-year trend of warming, global temperatures have flatlined since 2001 despite rising greenhouse gas concentrations, and a heat surplus that should have cranked up the planetary thermostat.

"This is nothing like anything we've seen since 1950," Kyle Swanson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee said. "Cooling events since then had firm causes, like eruptions or large-magnitude La Ninas. This current cooling doesn't have one."

Instead, Swanson and colleague Anastasios Tsonis think a series of climate processes have aligned, conspiring to chill the climate. In 1997 and 1998, the tropical Pacific Ocean warmed rapidly in what Swanson called a "super El Nino event." It sent a shock wave through the oceans and atmosphere, jarring their circulation patterns into unison.

How does this square with temperature records from 2005-2007, by some measurements among the warmest years on record? When added up with the other four years since 2001, Swanson said the overall trend is flat, even though temperatures should have gone up by 0.2 degrees Centigrade (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) during that time.

The discrepancy gets to the heart of one of the toughest problems in climate science — identifying the difference between natural variability (like the occasional March snow storm) from human-induced change.

But just what's causing the cooling is a mystery. Sinking water currents in the north Atlantic Ocean could be sucking heat down into the depths. Or an overabundance of tropical clouds may be reflecting more of the sun's energy than usual back out into space.

"It is possible that a fraction of the most recent rapid warming since the 1970's was due to a free variation in climate," Isaac Held of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Princeton, New Jersey wrote in an email to Discovery News. "Suggesting that the warming might possibly slow down or even stagnate for a few years before rapid warming commences again."

Swanson thinks the trend could continue for up to 30 years. But he warned that it's just a hiccup, and that humans' penchant for spewing greenhouse gases will certainly come back to haunt us.

"When the climate kicks back out of this state, we'll have explosive warming," Swanson said. "Thirty years of greenhouse gas radiative forcing will still be there and then bang, the warming will return and be very aggressive."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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