It was the coldest February Texas had seen in more than four decades, and the sustained blast of arctic air knocked out much of the state’s power grid for several days, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.
Yet 2021 also brought the planet’s 16th-warmest February since records began. On average, winters are getting more mild because climate change has increased temperatures worldwide. How could a warmer world bring such a severe cold snap to Texas?
Scientists say they are still working to understand the relationship between climate change and extreme winter weather patterns. Many factors can influence localized cold snaps, and evidence suggests that climate change is affecting longstanding climate patterns in new ways.
“The way those kinds of events occur involve a lot more complicated atmospheric processes,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist and acting deputy director for Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
Francis and other scientists said there’s a significant body of research that can help explain why Texas — and other areas of the U.S. — may still experience extreme cold from time to time amid an overall warming of the planet.
“Maybe there was some nuance that was missed when people started talking about winters disappearing and how we’re never going to see snow again,” said Judah Cohen, a leading scholar on winter weather and climate change and the director of seasonal forecasting at the climate analytics company Atmospheric and Environmental Research. “People say, ‘I was told one thing and I’m experiencing something else.’”
Several factors impact the frequency and severity of cold spells in Texas, from the strength of the polar vortex — a seasonal, swirling mass of cold air that circles high above the Arctic — to whether we’re in an El Niño or a La Niña year, which influences whether Texas has a wet or dry winter, to the natural patterns that influence the position and strength of the jet stream, which can determine the path and duration of weather systems.
Here’s what factors scientists say can cause an extreme cold snap to hit Texas — and how such storms may be influenced by climate change.
You should read the rest, because it’s pretty interesting. The science is still being developed, and so there’s disagreement about some of the findings, but the big picture is there. You might familiarize yourself with the concept of a “polar vortex”, because it’s a key factor. Hope for the best and be prepared, whatever happens.