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Winter Storms Offer a Taste of the Climate Chaos Ahead If We Don’t Cut Emissions

Weather extremes are what we must expect as we fill the atmosphere with fossil fuel emissions, a climate scientist says.

People work to dig out their car along a residential street on February 16, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois.

The frigid air mass that is blanketing much of the lower 48 states and Mexico in subzero temperatures is set to linger across much of the continent until Saturday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The sudden spate of extreme weather has already produced record snowfall, tornadoes and thundersnow.

So far, the death toll from Winter Storm Uri includes six people killed in a 133-car pileup near Fort Worth, Texas; at least three people crushed by debris in 160 mph wind in North Carolina; and a mother and daughter poisoned by carbon monoxide inside their car, where they huddled to stay warm overnight as the majority of Houston remained without power. Given the three-year continued national rise in people experiencing homelessness in cities across the U.S., officials have called the cold snap an “even greater risk” than exposure to COVID-19 for those without permanent shelter, The New York Times reports.

Temperatures in many places have shattered records. On February 16, Fayetteville, Arkansas, reached -20°F, its lowest recorded temperature since the city began collecting data in 1905. Lows in Shreveport, Louisiana; Tyler, Texas; and numerous other cities and towns reached similar off-the-charts bitter levels.

The extreme cold comes eight months after a chart-breaking record this summer at the other end of the mercury, when in June 2020, the Arctic reached its highest-ever recorded temperature of 100.4°F in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk.

“Both of these weather extremes are exactly the types of events that we expect to see happen more often as we continue to use the atmosphere as a dumpster for emissions from burning fossil fuels,” Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told Truthout.

The record high temperatures in Siberia — which is warming faster than anywhere else in the world — can be directly linked to the increasingly thick blanket of greenhouse gases humans continue to generate, Francis explained, as feedback loops like sea ice loss lead to increased heat absorption by the ocean, further accelerating the melting. Scientists say the jury is still out on the degree to which climate change is causing polar vortex events to occur more frequently and if so, how. This winter’s extreme cold spells over North America, Europe and northern Asia could be a natural occurrence. “But increasing evidence suggests that events like these may happen more often as the globe, and particularly the Arctic, continue to warm,” Francis said.

A significant temperature difference between cold Arctic air and warmer temperatures further south help keep the jet stream — the narrow band of air currents that circle the globe and transport weather systems — on a straighter path, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Undisturbed, this dynamic keeps the cold air contained, moving in a relatively straight pattern over the Arctic. When the jet stream weakens on account of warmer Arctic temperatures, it can grow “wobblier,” allowing channels of colder air to instead stream south.

Our current cold snap is linked to a warming event that disrupted the jet stream in January, Sarah Kapnick, deputy division leader at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at NOAA, told Truthout. That disruption allowed Arctic air to escape south, where it continues to wreak havoc.

“In building resilience to climate change, we can’t just focus on extreme heat, as extreme cold, while less likely, can still happen,” Kapnick said. Between 2007 and 2017, record high temperatures have occurred about twice as often as record lows.

As with most crises of the Anthropocene, the human suffering caused by this week’s extreme weather is anything but natural. As of Wednesday morning, Texas’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), had directed utilities to restore power to 600,000 customers, leaving an estimated 2.7 million people without electricity with no choice but to sit out the freezing spell in unheated living spaces.

On Tuesday, ERCOT announced that it would raise energy prices, citing “high demand” during the winter storm, while also noting that the grid operators had no idea when ratepayers could expect power to be fully restored. The outages are a result of state officials knowing for years that Texas’s independent grid was unprepared for a winter storm, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial team alleges.

“Texas’s deregulatory philosophy has caused them to put much less stringent rules on generators and system operators to be prepared for cold weather than other systems, where extreme cold is more common,” founder of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Peter Fox-Penner, told NBC.

Amid the freeze, gas, coal, wind and nuclear facilities all struggled to produce enough power to meet demand, though wind and solar power produced near or above planned capacity, according to energy analyst Jesse Jenkins. Even so, power lines and other transmission equipment were a more significant cause of outages than generation issues when put under high demand, Kate Aronoff wrote on Tuesday in The New Republic.

“Federal investment in modernized infrastructure that could better deal with that stress has been severely lacking,” she wrote, attributing the ongoing blackouts and overall system collapse in part to decades of lobbying from fossil fuel interests in favor of privatized power generation and distribution.

The antiquated grid extends far beyond Texas. So far this week, transformers have also exploded along Entergy’s Louisiana power lines in New Orleans and the suburb of Kenner, prompting calls for officials to “bury the grid.” Similar blasts and resulting outages were reported in Portland, Oregon, as well as Hoboken, New Jersey, and Greensboro, North Carolina. “I would be fine paying Duke Energy rate hikes if they would do something about the transformer at Pembroke & Friendly in Greensboro,” a resident posted on Twitter. “In 6 yrs, it has exploded 5 times leaving me w/out power for at least days. At 29 hrs now & my house is colder than outside.”

There’s also reason to believe residents living near refineries may be exposed to heightened local air pollution in areas where fossil fuel processing facilities have gone dark, and let out flares, on account of the cold. On February 15, refiners throughout Texas, including ExxonMobil, Total and Shell facilities reported flaring linked to operational changes, as 3.3 million barrels per day of refining capacity was disrupted on account of the low temperatures.

Flaring is a common safety practice at refineries, used to dispose of excess gas when unsafe pressure levels build up in equipment. In addition to cancer-causing benzene, flaring plumes also spew nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, among other pollutants. Long-term exposure to even a low concentration of these chemicals have health impacts including respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and facilities tend to be located in close proximity to low-income communities and communities of color.

Flames similarly spouted into the sky at a Valero oil refinery in Memphis, Tennessee, the same evening. “The sky looks like an atomic bomb went off,” a Memphis resident described on Twitter. A spokesperson for Valero told WMC the flare was needed due to “operational conditions” related to the extreme cold, and that the company was conducting air monitoring. Valero did not respond to Truthout’s requests for comment about air quality levels.

Chunrong Jia, a University of Memphis environmental health professor, told Truthout the flare could have resulted in an excessive release of pollutants into the atmosphere. Jia said short-term health impacts are likely to be negligible because the flare only lasted a few hours and was dispersed from a high stack, though he noted that an accurate health risk assessment is impossible without real-time air monitoring data, which is not available.

“The major concern is that such unusual flares become the norm and add a significant portion to the local and regional air pollution, which may cause long-term adverse health effects,” Jia said.

Emissions from flares are rarely reported to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, which is what the agency uses to regulate emissions, draft public policy and evaluate public health impacts. According to DeSmogBlog, the oil industry chronically underreports flaring.

As for preventing future crises related to extreme cold, in addition to developing a greener, more reliable grid, climate scientists say moving away from fossil fuels is essential, as is protecting forests and shifting agriculture toward practices that capture carbon rather than emit it.

“None of this is easy, but neither is recovering from the impacts of extreme weather,” Francis said.

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