Brett Wilkins

New climate study: Arctic heat fueled deadly February Texas freeze

New research published Friday suggests that melting Arctic sea ice caused by global heating may be responsible for the deadly deep freeze that devastated much of North America and plunged millions of Texans into darkness in February.

While climate researchers have previously connected the phenomena of polar heating and mid-latitute freezes, a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science is the first to link Arctic warming and February's cold snap. Authorities said the four-day extreme weather event—which left millions of residents trapped in sub-freezing darkness as Texas' largely independent power grid failed. State officials said the freezing temperatures killed more than 150 people in Texas, though others estimate the true death toll was likely much higher.

Polar vortices—large areas of low pressure and cold air swirling around the North and South poles—usually keep icy air contained there. However, research suggests that polar heating and ice melt fueled by the worsening climate emergency is allowing the normally trapped Arctic air to flow far southward.

Reporting on the new study, New Scientistexplains:

That link still isn't fully established. However, a group led by Judah Cohen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that vanishing sea ice and greater snowfall in the Arctic over the past 40 years, effects caused by climate change, may be driving cold winter weather in North America and Eurasia via the stratospheric polar vortex, the cold winds high above the pole. The rapid warming in the Arctic appears to be disrupting—that is, stretching—this vortex in a way that has a knock-on effect on atmospheric circulations above North America, generating unusually cold spells in winter.

"If you expected global warming to help you out with preparing for severe winter weather, our paper says the cautionary tale is: don't necessarily expect climate change to solve that problem for you," Cohen told New Scientist. "This is an unexpected impact from climate change that we didn't appreciate 20 years ago."

Continuing a decadeslong pattern of Texas Republicans denying the climate emergency, Gov. Greg Abbott blamed solar and wind power for February's blackouts, while calling the proposed Green New Deal "deadly" as people in his state were actually dying in darkness.

Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, told the Associated Press that "the Texas cold blast of February 2021 is a poster child" for the Arctic link theory. Francis, who was not involved in the new study, said the research "takes this controversial hypothesized linkage and moves it solidly toward accepted science."

"By analyzing both observations and model simulations," Francis told New Scientist, "the conclusions are well supported and help explain how extreme cold spells like the debilitating one in Texas this past February are still likely—and perhaps more so—as the climate crisis unfolds."

Writing in The Conversation, Cohen and Mathew Barlow, two of study's five authors, conclude that "our research reinforces two crucial lessons of climate change: First, the change doesn't have to occur in your backyard to have a big effect on you. Second, the unexpected consequences can be quite severe."

"In this case, large changes in the Arctic are not just a local concern—they also have wide-ranging impacts across North America and parts of Asia," they note. "And those impacts are not always what people are expecting. The results highlight another reason to rapidly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming and at the same time the need to develop better strategies for managing extreme weather events, both hot and cold."

Civil rights groups sound the alarm over new voter suppression attempts in Georgia runoff

Officials in Goergia's third most populous county came under fire from civil rights advocates Monday after announcing they would slash the number of early voting sites for the state's two critical U.S. Senate runoff elections by more than half.

Half a dozen groups including the Georgia NAACP, the ACLU of Georgia, and the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a letter (pdf) to the Cobb County Board of Commissioners and Board of Elections and Registration urging them not to cut back on early voting sites. The officials plan on closing six of the county's 11 advance polling locations, claiming they do not have the resources to keep all of them open.

"While these closures are likely to adversely affect many Cobb County voters, we are especially concerned that these closures will be harmful to Cobb County's Black and Latinx voters because many of the locations are in Black and Latinx communities," the letter states.

According to (pdf) the Center for New Data, of the 10 Georgia polling locations with the highest estimated portion of voters spending longer than 30 minutes on-site, five are slated for closure.

Some 760,000 people live in the county, which lies just northwest of Atlanta. Its population is nearly 29% Black and over 13% Latinx and, although long a Republican stronghold, has become more liberal in recent years.

While Republican nominee Mitt Romney trounced former President Barack Obama by over 12 percentage points in the 2012 presidential election, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton edged out President Donald Trump by two points in 2016 and President-elect Joe Biden easily defeated Trump by 14 points in 2020, largely on the strength of the very Black and Latinx voters who rights advocates warn would likely be adversely affected by the closure of polling sites during the coronavirus pandemic.

Covid-19, "which is ravaging the nation, has had extremely harsh effects in Black and Latinx communities and makes in-person voting on Election Day an untenable option for many voters," the groups' letter asserts.

"Moreover, due to widespread concerns with the reliability of the United States Postal Service, many voters are not comfortable requesting or casting absentee ballots by mail," the letter states. "As demonstrated by the record turnout during the advance voting period for the 2020 general election, advance voting is the only acceptable option for safe and secure voting for many voters."

Under Georgia law, if a Senate candidate does not receive at least 50% of the vote in a general election, the two top-finishing candidates must face each other in a runoff. On January 5, there will be two such elections, with Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff facing Sen. David Perdue in one and Rev. Raphael Warnock taking on Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the other.

On November 3, Perdue won 49.7% to Ossoff's 47.9%, while Warnock led Loeffler by a wider margin of 32.9% to 29.5%, with the GOP vote being split between Loeffler and Doug Collins, who received 20.0% of the vote.

If both Ossoff and Warnock emerge victorious, Democrats will gain control of the Senate, as incoming Vice President Kamala Harris will cast the tie-breaking vote. If either GOP incumbent wins, Republicans will remain in control of the Senate, posing what is likely to be a constant thorn in the side of President Joe Biden and his agenda.

Early voting for the Georgia Senate runoffs begins December 14.

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