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Monster snowstorms still spell global warming

By Michio Kaku, Special to CNN
  • Michio Kaku says Northeast's record-breaking snow seems to contradict global warming
  • But global warming puts more moisture in atmosphere, hence more snow, he says
  • Heating oceans affects weather patterns: more snow, but extreme heat, storms, he says
  • Kaku: Controversy is over human causes, but few disagree warming is happening

Editor's note: Michio Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming book "Physics of the Future."

New York (CNN) -- The weather seems to be going berserk, with more snow dumped on our beleaguered Northeastern cities in a month than in a year, paralyzing business and our lives. Records are being broken even as we speak.

Common sense says that it's the freezing cold that is behind the freaky weather. But physics says otherwise.

Basically, snowstorms in this region arise from the collision of cold Arctic air from Canada moving south and bumping up against warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, causing water vapor to condense and freeze and then form snowstorms, which travel up the Northeast corridor.

Among many factors, the amount of snow dumped is largely driven by the amount of moisture in humid air and not so much the temperature, and this seems to go against common sense. (For example, if we are making ice cubes, the amount of water in the ice tray, not the temperature, determines how much ice we can make. If we crank down the temperature dial in our freezer, this simply makes the ice freeze faster but does not increase the amount of ice produced.)

There is no single smoking gun that can point us to the origin of these monster snowstorms. But we can focus our attention on two likely culprits. The first is pure chance. There are many random fluctuations in the weather due to many diverse factors (for example, last year's weather was affected by El Niño).

But the second is global warming. This also seems to violate common sense, but realize that global warming can heat the oceans and generate more moisture, which in turn can drive larger storms. Last year was, in fact, tied with 2005 as the hottest year recorded since 1880, when precise measurements began.

Northeast blasted by snow
New York snow breaks record
Scenic view of snowy New York

However, some people may object, there are vastly different weather patterns around the world. But realize that global warming causes swings in the weather, not a uniform rise in world temperature. Think of pushing a child on a swing. By adding more energy by pushing the child farther, the child does not suddenly rise and stop in midair. Instead, the oscillations and swinging increase.

Similarly, the main consequence of global warming is not warming at all but instead increasingly violent swings in the weather, with droughts and famine in one area occurring at the same time as flooding in another, and snowstorms in one region at the same time as hot spells in another.

I saw this two weeks ago when I spoke in São Paulo, Brazil, where there were massive, lethal mudslides caused by unrelenting, pouring rain, which in turn might have been caused by increased moisture in the air. Of course, this means only that global warming is consistent with the monster storms hitting the Northeast, not that it is the only definitive factor.

Global warming is controversial, of course, but the controversy is mainly over whether human activity is driving it. There is almost uniform agreement from both sides of the debate that the Earth is heating up, as carefully recorded by numerous ground stations and satellites.

And as the Earth continues to heat, it means that there will be more moisture in the air to possibly drive more monster storms and hurricanes, simultaneously with droughts and hot spells. So we might expect more unusual, bizarre weather patterns in the future.

And unless something is done about it, get used to it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michio Kaku.