Breaking News Emails
People on the East Coast who are digging out from feet of snow or dealing with sub-freezing temps might be forgiven for wondering: Whatever happened to global warming?
The answer is that while much of the U.S. isn't feeling the warmth, it's still happening globally — and there's even the possibility that the latest East Coast cold snap is a byproduct of a warmer world.
"Only a sliver of the planet's land surface is having a relatively cool year and it happens to be the eastern U.S.," says Bob Henson, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
Temperatures on the rest of the planet have been warm enough that both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have indicated that 2014 could go down as the warmest year since record keeping began in 1880.
"Globally it is very likely that 2014 will be the warmest on record," Tom Peterson, the principal scientist at NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, tells NBCNews.com. Global maps show "some very warm areas, a lot of moderately warm areas and only a few areas that were cold," he adds.
So if most of the globe is warming, what gives with the recent cold blasts in areas east of the Rockies?
Last winter's Arctic blast led scientists to theorize that warmer Pacific waters or melting summer Arctic sea ice or just random weather could be factors.
The cold front this month, however, appears to have a different birth.
The events "started with exceptionally warm sea temperatures in the Pacific that led to the super Typhoon Nuri," says Kevin Trenberth, an atmospheric scientist at NCAR. On Nov. 8, the typhoon became "incredibly intense … advanced to the north and brought very warm air up into Alaska and into the Arctic."
"The cold air had to go somewhere else and it did: down across the U.S.," says Trenberth. "By Nov. 12 the very cold air over North America was matched by very warm air over Alaska and the Arctic."
But even this climate dance appears to have a warming connection. "The oceans are warmer and there is five percent more moisture in the air over the oceans than prior to 1970," says Trenberth, "and the extra moisture fuels storms like Haiyan and Nuri and indeed adds a bit more volatility to the weather."
Still, those connections won't keep people waist deep in snow from asking, "What global warming?"
"I get this all the time," says Bill Karins, a meteorologist for NBC News who is based in New York City. His ready response: "I tell people to go home, turn their thermostat up one degree and see if anyone else even notices. Most won't notice anything has changed.
"I tell people to try this because the scientific belief is our planet has warmed a little over one degree Fahrenheit over the past 100 years and the warming wasn't uniform, with the most significant warming taking place at the poles," he says. "That is why so many people struggle to grasp the concept of global warming — it's not events, storms or forecasts which everyone is familiar with. It is on a planetary scale and the U.S. is a very small percentage of our planet's surface.
"On a planetary scale," he adds, "the extreme warmth in Alaska and the North Pacific this month almost balances the Lower 48's extreme cold."
Peterson, for his part, points out that cold snaps are happening less often, even in the Northeast. Sure, New York City had a few days at 5 degrees or colder last winter, but that's nothing compared to the 1970s and 1980s, he says, citing NOAA data.
"Clearly if we are complaining about (recent) cold outbreaks that were much less (intense) than they were in the 1970s and 80s," he adds, "then it indicates that we've gotten used to warmer weather."
Henson, who is also author of "The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change," emphasizes that global air and sea temperatures have never been so high in recorded history, or summer Arctic sea ice so low.
"So one thing we can expect in the future," he says, "is surprises."