Mother Jones' Climate Desk takes a look at the (actually scientific) argument between climatologists Jennifer Francis and Kevin Trenberth over whether the mid-latitude jet stream is changing permanently, making winters more intense:
Jennifer Francis, of Rutgers University, has advanced an influential theory suggesting that winters like this one may be growing more likely to occur. The hypothesis is that by rapidly melting the Arctic, global warming is slowing down the fast-moving river of air far above us known as the jet stream—in turn causing weather patterns to get stuck in place for longer, and leading to more extremes of the sort that we've all been experiencing. "There is a lot of pretty tantalizing evidence that our hypothesis seems to be bearing some fruit," Francis explained on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast. The current winter is a "perfect example" of the kind of jet stream pattern that her research predicts, Francis added (although she emphasized that no one atmospheric event can be directly blamed on climate change).
Francis's idea has gained rapid celebrity, no doubt because it seems to make sense of our mind-boggling weather. After all, it isn't often that an idea first published less than two years is strongly embraced by the president's science adviser in a widely watched YouTube video. And yet in a letter to the journal Science last week, five leading climate scientists—mainstream researchers who accept a number of other ideas about how global warming is changing the weather, from worsening heat waves to driving heavier rainfall—strongly contested Francis's jet stream claim, calling it "interesting" but contending that "alternative observational analyses and simulations have not confirmed the hypothesis." One of the authors was the highly influential climate researcher Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who also appeared on Inquiring Minds this week alongside Francis to debate the matter.
What's going on here? In climate science, too many of the "debates" that we hear about are fake, trumped up affairs generated by climate skeptics who aim to sow doubt. But that's not the case here: The argument over Francis's work is real, legitimate, and damn interesting to boot. There is, quite simply, a massive amount at stake. The weather touches all of us personally and immediately. Indeed, social scientists have shown that our recent weather experience is a powerful determinant of whether we believe in global warming in the first place. If Francis is right, the very way that we experience global warming will be vastly different than scientists had, until now, foreseen—and perhaps will stay that way for our entire lives.
Skepticism underpins scientific inquiry, so this should be a great and healthy debate. We'll also get more data in the next few years that may support or dispute Francis' position.
Meanwhile, here in Chicago, the temperature plunged overnight to -17°C (also know as "minus fuckall"), and will stay down there at least through next week. This means that for the entire meterological winter season, from December 1 to February 28, Chicago will have had only six low temperatures above freezing, and since January 1st only 5 days above freezing.
Go home, Arctic. You're an asshole.