The Climate has already Changed and Won’t Change Back

Hurricane Sandy’s belated recognition of the issue is way too late-

After hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the fossil fuel industry and its allies like the Koch Brothers, one wrong way hurricane affecting millions of people has put climate change back on the political map.

The melt of the Arctic Ocean and the polar jet stream-

Politics aside, there are many reasons to believe the likelihood of wrong way, late season hurricanes like Sandy has changed (increased). This increased likelihood is irreversible. In other words, it is too late to stop. It can’t be changed back. Here is the reason. The Arctic Ocean now melts almost completely in the summer, and that greatly changes the jet stream.

The melt is both the effect of warmer temperatures in the Arctic and also the cause of continuing warming.  It works this way. Ice reflects light and heat. Blue water absorbs and retains much of the heat.  Once ice melts it takes a lot of cold to refreeze it.  Now melted, the Arctic Ocean will not refreeze except for a meaningless couple feet in winter. Its deep blue waters will soak up more of the sun’s heat and make the Arctic warmer still.  On the land in the Arctic the melting permafrost is releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane gas. These gases cause more solar energy in the form of heat to be retained.  This is a positive feedback loop.

A milder Arctic and permanent changes in the polar jet stream-

So what if the Arctic is much milder?  Some say “sounds great!” Others say, “I don’t live there so it doesn’t matter.”

Yes, there are many things that have and will change. Many of us will cheer some of them, but the one that affects the entire northern hemisphere’s weather permanently is the slowing down of the polar jet stream.

The polar jet stream of very strong winds at the top of the troposphere circles the northern part of the globe from west to east. It is the result of the rotation of the Earth and the temperature difference between the frozen Arctic and generally snow and ice free lands to its south. Temperature differences cause wind.  Today the temperature difference between the Arctic and land and water to the south is much less than it used to be. So the winds have slowed down.

A powerful polar jet stream forms a vortex and keeps the frigid Arctic air locked up near the Arctic Circle. This jet stream is never a perfect circle around the top of the globe. It has dips (“troughs”) and ridges in it.  When a trough comes over your area, e.g., state or region, we expect the storm track will move over you.  That probably means wet stormy weather, especially in the winter. A jet stream ridge allows high pressure to dominate to its south. In the spring, winter and fall this means not much precipitation.

High pressure can result in rain in the summer. Then, sub-tropical air comes up from the south and creates thunderstorms around the edges of the clockwise rotating high pressure area. These thunderstorms on the margin of the high pressure are called “the ring of fire.”

What are the effects of a weaker, slower polar jet stream?

As the Arctic loses its temperature difference from land and waters to the south, there is not  enough to create as strong a jet stream. Therefore, the troughs and ridges in the path of the jet become more pronounced. The jet stream now dives deeper to the south and retreats back further to the north in addition to its normal west to east circle around the globe. This means Arctic air will be pulled much further south one place and sub-tropical air much further north in another place  (often at the same time).

The strange events of March 2012-

Those who live in the eastern U.S. will remember last March when temperatures soared 30 to 50  degrees above normal, reaching highs of 90+ degrees in New England. The news media and talk in the street was all about the incredible warmth.  A distorted weak jet stream had allowed tropical air to drift far north.

The rest of the story didn’t get much attention, but as the jet stream retreated far north in the Eastern United States, at the same time it plunged all the way to Mexico in the West. It was cool and wet in the American Southwest. It snowed in southern Arizona desert and in northern Mexico. The jet stream became so deformed, it broke off  forming a “closed” or “cutoff” low pressure area.  While closed lows are not hurricanes, they can drop an amazing amount of rain because without a jet stream to push them along, the low just sits there and drifts around for days on end.  It can rain for a week or two. Of course, the news media did not tie the two events together, but as I watched the weather map, it was unforgettably strange.

Other effects of a weak jet polar jet stream-

If we can sum up the effects of a weak polar jet, it makes whatever weather we are having more persistent.  Rain storms move more slowly and so drop more water. Droughts form under very stable ridges because the ridges are slow to be pushed aside by the jet stream. They last much longer. One result is gigantic wildfire seasons. Mid-latitude temperatures show greater extremes. People think climate change means warmer temperatures. No, it is not so simple. Yes, the average temperature will probably rise, but more importantly the variations of the temperature around the mean temperature have grown in size.

Summer-like temperatures in the winter and in the early spring, or late autumn temperatures in the middle of the summer cause the most damage to crops, livestock, to wildlife and natural land cover, and ultimately to the economy. Because humans, plants and animals have learned or evolved to fit natural cycles, their change will prove destructive.

We all know that water is slow to heat and equally slow to cool.  Once ice has melted, a lot of heat must be shed before it refreezes, especially freezes deep. The Arctic Ocean melted much more quickly than predicted and all the efforts to curb greenhouse gases now will not refreeze it, except over a period of hundreds of years. We are once again talking climate change, but talk is cheap and maybe pointless because the climate has changed.

Our recognition comes far too late.

– – – –

Follow the jet stream, animated.






  1. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    I hope that those affected by the storm have a place to vote and are able to get there.

    1. Louise Kane Avatar

      I’ve seen that they will be allowed to vote by e mail. I can’t imagine how but thats what was being reported on CNN

  2. mikepost Avatar

    Ralph, many are beginning to believe that Sandy will prove a seminal moment, late or otherwise, in the acceptance of global warming in the US. Much like the Cuyuga River fire of long ago that had so much impact on environmental law, it takes an epifany for the common man to see the light when dealing with complex and multi-layered issues that require sacrifice to address.

  3. Jon Way Avatar

    The fact that there was no discussion about climate change during the debates or the masted million in attack ads is almost criminal. I can’t believe most Americans don’t seem to acknowledge this or think it is serious. It shows how scientifically illiterate the average American is, only thinking about there next paycheck and not have to pay taxes.

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      sorry “wasted” millions of dollars in attack ads (in my opinion at least)…

    2. WM Avatar

      ++It shows how scientifically illiterate the average American is,…+

      And that is a decidely significant flaw of our democracy in the 21st Century. We do not require sufficient proof of voter identity or even a basic indicator of literacy and awareness of what is going on in our world to participate in elections. Nor do we require “truth” in the campaign ads which oppose or support candidates and issue votes. We can thank the two party system for much of this, including the scientific ignorance part.

      1. Louise Kane Avatar

        WM its awful to see all the BS and lies. But then again thats what happens in national advertising with pharmaceuticals, food, everything. I hate listening to the pundits after a debate and they aren’t worried about whether a stance on an issue is correct, or stated by using facts. Instead you’ll hear a comment about how this candidate looked so presidential or kept his temper in check. Appalling. How do we get past this now, Americans are dummied down and used to it.

        1. Mark L Avatar
          Mark L

          When we’re all experts at judging perforrmances on ‘American Idol’….it’s what we’ve been trained to do! We need to ooh and ahhh the crowd, not fill their heads with real….
          (cue black helicopters by Mark L’s house)

      2. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        It has never been a two party system.
        It has, over time, been foisted on the American citizen because there can only be two sides too the same coin….

  4. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue


    “It shows how scientifically illiterate the average American is, only thinking about there next paycheck and not have to pay taxes.”

    I agree with the scientific illiteracy comment; however, the “average” American is just trying to get by, so that next pay check is important. Taxes, necessary evil, but who truly wants to pay them?

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      True IT,
      I guess the 2 parts of my statement don’t look great together as I am one that am not very far ahead financially given I work for the park service right now as my main paycheck and own a house…. However, it is very scary (even with paycheck in mind) that we are (as a society) ignoring climate change issues and yes, WM, the 2 party system is much to blame with no accurate info determining anything, or so it seems. I could never donate to a politician just knowing that I would be part of these ads that could be used/spent in so many other places.

  5. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    Re: Arctic Ice
    Meanwhile, how’s the ice in the Antarctic? Reminds me of Einstein’s comments in the Forward section of Hapgood’s Earth Crust Displacement (ECD) stuff. It’s a precursor to plate tectonics, but fun reading. I’m not a doomer, but repeated similar anecdotal events WILL eventually add to something. What? …not sure.

  6. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    Jon, money is like water….it’s gonna find its own level. If you follow the advertisement money down the rabbit hole where does it go? Media jackasses that spend it on stupid crap (inevitable) and overcharge parties for airtime. If people would just avoid 1 (one) form of media, they would lose the majority of their power. Maybe step away from the TV and assume more power?

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      Got ya beat. DVR. Fast fwd thru the crap…

  7. Maggie McGreen Avatar

    I think if the average American read articles like this, and was just presented with a basic overview of the facts concerning climate change, they would agree that it is important to prevent further damage from climate change. I wrote a short essay, trying to explain why, even those people who aren’t 100% convinced should care, and should vote. Take a look here

    1. Louise Kane Avatar

      thanks for the blog link maggie

  8. Leslie Avatar

    I think several things happen to people’s brains when they try and think ‘climate change’. The people listening and cued in get overwhelmed; the other people listening stick their heads in the sand and say it’s not happening, and then everyone just goes back to driving their cars and enjoying their lifestyles.

    Meanwhile, sometimes my paranoid part wonders if the people with money/power are secretly preparing to house themselves somewhere safe while feeding lies to the public so the plebeians will disappear and the rich will inherit the earth.

  9. alf Avatar

    Excellent post, Ralph ! You did a great job of condensing a very complex set of issues down to something even the typical climate change denier should be able to grasp.

    That said, once upon a midnight dark and dreary, I think is how it goes, some 50+ years ago, when I was in the service and was the corporal of the guard on the 12 to 4 watch, I remember reading an article in a popular magazine on the comings and goings of ice ages.

    The author argued that ice ages come about when the Arctic Ocean is ice-free, and the winds blowing across it pick up moisture from the open water, and drop it as snow on the land to the south, much like the “lake effect” snows that hit Buffalo, NY every winter. Over time, more snow accumulates than melts, it compresses into ice and forms continental glaciers and ice caps. (I don’t remember what he said broke that cycle, though.)

    I don’t recall having seen or heard any mention of that hypothesis since, so I assume it’s been generally discredited, but if the hypothesis is correct, contrary to the majority of thought, we might be at the start of another ice age, rather than a prolonged period of global warming.

    Just a contrarian thought. And I am NOT a climate change denier !!

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      We’ve been getting “pingbacks” on this post, meaning that other sites are linking to it. The above video was contained in one of the posts. It is a good animation of the jet stream phenomenon that Ralph describes.

  10. Mike Avatar

    People only tend to pay attention to science when its sitting on their front lawn. And Sandy did that.

    But, people will forget, become complacent. We are all guilty of it, enviro’s, fuel-hogs, etc.

    I make fun of many rural folk who whip past me on the interstate in 14 MPG trucks doing 95 (and who I then pass at gas stations), but they usually only have one house. I have environmentalist Prius-driving friends who have TWO houses, and pay to heat and cool and power them year round….

    I’m guilty of it when I drive too much.

    But, the best thing we can do is to vote for leaders. Real leaders. People who have the ability to get people to do the right thing.

    The best thing is to move towards efficient vehicles immediately. You know who you are, lol. That’s one way to reduce consumption and emissions. An immediate impact.

  11. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    Well I could say it was bad by me boats were on people’s lawn a block in frm the river.A club on the river smashed through somebodies house,people throwing out furniture all over the place.I stiil do not have power,two kids in Staten Island got swept away from their parents in a wave,they found the two children miles away drowned miles away.A rollar coaster swept out to sea in sea side heights.The stories go on and on.Houses burned to the ground in Rockaway and by me. Boardwalks all gone Avon ,Belmar etc. Only one person knew about the movie inconvenient truth and the person knew it was by Al Gore.I really believe many people do not believe in this change or that we are to blame for a good deal of it

  12. Salle Avatar

    Boulder scientists: Climate models predicting greater warming appear more accurate

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      And a related story:
      Spring Arctic snow pack melting fast, study warns
      Environment Canada researcher says climate change happening quicker than expected

  13. monty Avatar

    Tribalism may be the greatest impediment to convincing the climate deniers that this issue is “Here and Now. The deniers are so tied to the 20century community of fossil fuels, with it’s traditions and customs of routine pollution of air water and land, that they are blind to this reality. The fossil fuel undustry is like cave men tearing at the carcuss of the last mammoth on earth–where fairness and reason are abstract terms–and they are determined to get their piece of meat and to hell with the neighboring tribes.

    1. Salle Avatar


      That and the fact that they are so distracted with all those toys that keep them from looking at or seeing the world around them. They are not willing to see that convenience is a sham and that their conveniences will be their undoing. And the will cry when they have to go about life without those conveniences because their main concerns will be the ability to breathe and foraging for food and water and shelter.

  14. Mark Gelbart Avatar

    The author of this article is a professor of political science, not climate science.

    The recent hysteria linking Hurricane Sandy to global warming is an example of confusion between weather and climate.

    A hurricane is a weather event.

    Liberals often criticize conservatives who express doubt about climate change when a cold front occurs during winter by claiming the latter doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate. Liberals using Hurricane Sandy to demonstrate global warming are guilty of the same ignorance.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Mark Gelbart,

      I agree with you that Sandy was not caused by climate change. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear in the article or make the article long enough. Climate change cannot and never will explain any particular event. Climate is simply a description of what the weather is like in a particular area or areas. When the climate changes that simply means that the typical weather has changed, such as the average high temp, low temp, temp variation, wind speed, precipitation, and much more.

      When I say the climate has already changed, I mean the typical weather has changed. So I am not referring to one weather event. It is the probability of many kinds of weather events that change. The Arctic Ocean has thawed. The polar jet stream has changed and so this changed the probability of many weather events. The past probability of various weather events will never change back because the Arctic Ocean cannot be refrozen except on a vast time scale.

      Your last paragraph shows you have an ideological perspective on this entire matter. As a political scientist that is easy for me to recognize. As a scientist I know that ideology should play no role in meteorology.

  15. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    I wrote this article and uploaded it on Nov. 4, 2012 — about two years ago.

    I don’t usually do this, but I have to crow about it. I got it right!! This is the primary way global, or at least hemispheric warming affects the climate — by slowing down the jet stream and producing many more deep troughs or tall ridges in these stratospheric weather carrying winds.

    Now there are numerous articles taking this position and expanding on it. The latest is in Dec. 2014 Scientific American. “The Jet Stream is Getting Weird.” Earlier there was and many more. Do a web search.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      A related article Ralph, also from 2 years ago.

      “They’re clearly cognizant of global warming – they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all, and they’re bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice. And yet they relentlessly search for more hydrocarbons – in early March, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told Wall Street analysts that the company plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas”

      How do you stop greed?

      1. Yvette Avatar

        “They’re clearly cognizant of global warming – they employ some of the world’s best scientists, after all, and they’re bidding on all those oil leases made possible by the staggering melt of Arctic ice.

        Yes, that is it. They know what they are doing and have known for a long time. The most successful (in terms of money) industry ever known to mankind will never stop pillaging this planet. They are the Genghis Khan of the modern era. It works to their advantage that most people in the world are poor; that the income gap in America is widening, and that American public education is failing to help most low income people rise out of poverty. Poor people worry about money and jobs. Healthy ecosystems and the rapid rate of extinction happening to the planet’s animals is not on a person’s mind when their lives are centered around having enough cash to ride the bus to work or pay rent. Poor people scare the middle class. There are many dynamics that work in the favor of the uber rich fossil fuel industry. Not only do they employ some of the best scientists, but they employ the best marketers. They utilize the most sophisticated marketing strategies to sell their damage to people that are largely more concerned with getting through the day, or if middle class, how to reach retirement financially intact.

        How do you stop greed?

        If someone has never been poor, and I mean the type of poverty where one is just existing from day to day. The worries and stresses faced are of a more immediate kind. The worries are about protecting your kid from rape because you don’t have a safe place to live. Day in; day out. One has to plan when and how they can access food, rides, a place to sleep, so they really aren’t concerned with animal extinctions, habitat loss, or the massive damage done to the boreal forests in Alberta. They aren’t worrying about when the KXL is installed that it will at some point contaminate one of the biggest and most important aquifers in the world, the Ogallala aquifer.

        I use to ask myself why these corporations, and the richest industry ever known to mankind didn’t care. Why is it that they don’t care that they have land and important water sources in Nigeria? There are Nigerians that depended on that land and water hunt and fish for subsistence and they can no longer do that. Why don’t they care? Because they are poor, and African, and Black so their voice is but a whimper in this world. I no longer ask myself why don’t they care. Now I simply accept that they know exactly what they are doing. They don’t care what destruction they bring. They don’t care if that destruction is in the Arctic or in Nigeria. They don’t care if if it is in the Kalamazoo River or Mayflower, Arkansas. They will never care. They will never give a damn about anything other than money. Money is the water they drink. They exist in a reality buffered by billions of dollars. Money is the elixir of their lives, so we will not stop their greed.

  16. Yvette Avatar

    Very cool, Ralph. It was about two years ago when I heard people start referring to climate change as the more appropriate, climate chaos. It’s rather depressing, though, to know we’re most likely on a path of no return.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan