In mid-February, 2021, the Midwest region of the United States was in the grip of a historically unprecedented winter storm crisis. The disaster was caused by a weakening in the jet stream, the pattern of high atmospheric wind movement that flows from west to east across the North American continent. The jet stream is responsible for helping the polar vortex keep its shape over the Arctic Circle.
The polar vortex itself, a mass of swirling, frigid air that rotates over the North Pole, keeps temperatures frozen in the remote, frosty northern reaches of the planet. When the jet stream is weakened, irregularities in the polar vortex can cause it to dip to the south. Normally, when this happens, it causes historic winter storms to plunge southward, out over Southern Canada and into the northern portion of the United States.
However, the recent storms over the Midwest caused sub-freezing temperatures to reach as far south as the town of Galveston, Texas, which is a coastal city on the Gulf of Mexico. The same city that hunkers down for hurricanes when the Atlantic hurricane season kicks off in the Spring found itself without power and covered under a record-setting quantity of snow.
Some meteorologists fear that this incident could be a preview of more extreme weather events to come. The impact of human activity on the global climate has been well-documented by science, but many companies and governments have continued business as usual, allowing greenhouse gas emissions to stay high even as the polar ice caps have lost mass and more and more extreme weather events continue to grab headlines.
The cost of these disasters is also staggering. Countries, developed and developing alike, have had to foot the bill for billions of dollars of damage from natural disasters in just the past three years. The cost of curbing emissions and embracing green energy are much, much lower than allowing global climate change to continue pushing the weather into more extreme forms.
This issue isn’t just limited to one country. All of the biggest contributors to global emissions would need to work together to tackle this problem. Sadly, the self-interest of those governments often precludes them from working with entities like the United Nations in curbing their carbon footprint. The science is clear: there is still time to avert future climate disasters, but that time is running short.