By: Kathleen Haughney | Published: | 2:41 pm | SHARE: Share on FacebookTweet

As many areas of the country grapple with extreme winter weather, scientists are examining the root causes of these conditions.  

Florida State University experts are available to provide context for these news stories.  

Brad Johnson, Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences and Public Policy

Johnson is an assistant professor of geography whose research focuses on land-atmosphere interactions, the impact of cities on regional climate, the intersection of weather and climate, geospatial information systems and remote sensing applications. He received his doctorate from the University of Georgia.  

“Our climate system, like our bodies, is very sensitive to what goes into it. As carbon emissions increase in the atmosphere, they act as a thicker blanket causing our global temperature to rise over time. What does this have to do with winter weather? To find the connection, it’s important to understand how winter storms operate. Storm tracks follow jet stream patterns which circle the planet several miles above the surface. The jet streams are caused, in part, because temperatures are warmer in the tropics than they are in our coldest regions near the poles. As our climate warms, our coldest regions are warming faster. This shrinks that temperature difference that drives the jet streams. When the jet streams are at full strength, they actually lock colder air into normally cold regions. But when they weaken, they start to form ripples in the atmosphere, causing cold, Arctic air to spill into the United States. So even though our climate is warming, winter and its cold winds still exist. As we change our planet’s atmosphere globally, we disrupt its ability to keep extreme cold in check. Sometimes, that leads to unusual stretches of winter weather in places that might not be ready for it. 

Allison Wing, Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, College of Arts and Sciences

Wing is an assistant professor at Florida State University and an adjunct associate research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Her lab focuses on atmospheric dynamics and climate, with specific interests in tropical cyclones and tropical convection. Among her research interests is the intersection of extreme weather and climate.  

“Extreme weather events of many types, such as heavy rainfall, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes, are made more extreme by climate change. In the case of the weather pattern associated with the recent extreme cold in Texas and the central United States, though, the role of climate change is less clear. There are some hypotheses about how a warming climate may affect the jet stream and the waves and wobbles in the jet stream that give rise to our high- and low-pressure weather systems, but the jury is still out on what those effects are, whether we have seen any changes, and what the changes may be in the future.