Blizzard of 2010: Has global warming turned Americans into winter wimps?
The 'snowball express' blizzard of 2010 led to lots of public nail-biting and even the postponement of a pro football game. Perceptions about global warming have helped make Americans forget that, sometimes, winters bring a lot of snow, an expert suggests.
Maybe it was those warm, snow-bare years and the impression that global warming was in the process of turning Minneapolis into Miami, but what's with the hyperbolic national reaction to the "snowball express" winter storm of 2010?
The hand-wringing by news anchors up and down the East Coast was on Sunday compounded by the postponement – before a flake of snow had fallen – of the Philadelphia Eagles-Minnesota Vikings pro football game, causing Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell to fume: "This is football; football is played in bad weather."
Yes, the early winter snow storm is a doozy, dropping Christmas snow on parts of the South for the first time since right after the Civil War and wrapping parts of the Northeast in nearly three feet of snow. Six states declared states of emergency and 4,000 flights were canceled. An A train in Queens got stuck and stranded 500 passengers for seven hours on Sunday.
But to some Americans, the hyperbolic reaction from some quarters – including city leaders in Philadelphia – seemed a bit, well, overwrought.
"Back in the Day, they didn't cancel the bivouac at Valley Forge or the War for Independence over a few flakes of snow or a strong breeze," writes commenter Eephus on Philadelphia Daily News. "Washington crossed the Delaware in worse weather than this. What a nation of quiche eaters we've become"
To David Ropeik, a risk assessment expert, it's simply a matter of what we've become accustomed to – and recently, that has been mild winters. "Something that's familiar to us will upset us less and something that's not familiar will upset us more," says Mr. Ropeik, author of "How Risky Is It? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts."
"Degrees on a thermometer or inches of snow all gets interpreted by how that feels to us," he adds. "This isn't just ones and zeroes in a computer, but we have to run it through our emotional software."
In some cases, that could drive anxiety over severe weather – and the prospect of holding a massive sporting event amid a blizzard. In others, it could drive a backlash against a "nanny state" that calls off one of America's most beloved cold-weather rites when too many flakes fly.
"If we're not a nanny state, then we've become a nation of overcautious risk managers, also known as wimps," writes Will Bunch in the Daily News about the decision to postpone the game.
Scientists say that more extreme weather – not just warming – is at the core of climate change, and that jibes with the fact that many of the world's major cities are having colder-than-usual beginnings to the winter.
But scientists have predicted warmer winters two years in a row and gotten it wrong. One potential reason is that preoccupation with warmer ocean temperatures have caused prognosticators to miss other trends, such as the snowpack in Siberia and the complex dynamics of a high pressure oscillation on top of Greenland.
What's more, Piers Corbyn, a British forecaster who looks primarily at solar activity, sees the last two wintry years as the first phase of a mini-ice age that could be in full swing by 2035.
Whatever the meteorological cause and effect of the early snow and cold, risk expert Ropeik warns against reading too much into the response. "We do tend to overemphasize the dread of the moment," he says. "That's just human instinct."