You Asked, We Answered: Some Burning Climate Questions

The connection between climate change and extreme cold weather involves the polar jet stream in the Northern Hemisphere, strong winds that blow around the globe from west to east at an altitude of 5 to 9 miles. The jet stream naturally shifts north and south, and when it shifts south, it brings frigid Arctic air with it.

A separate wind system, called the polar vortex, forms a ring around the North Pole. When the vortex is temporarily disrupted — sometimes stretched or elongated, and other times broken into pieces — the jet stream tends to take one of those southward shifts. And research “suggests these disruptions to the vortex are happening more often in connection with a rapidly warming, melting Arctic, which we know is a clear symptom of climate change,” said Jennifer A. Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Warmer oceans are killing corals. Rising sea levels threaten the beaches that sea turtles need for nesting, and hotter temperatures are causing more females to be born. Changing seasons are increasingly out of step with the conditions species have evolved to depend on.

And then there are the polar bears, long a symbol of what could be lost in a warming world.

Climate change is already affecting plants and animals in ways that scientists are racing to understand. One study predicted sudden die offs, with large segments of ecosystems collapsing in waves. This has already started in coral reefs, scientists say, and could start in tropical forests by the 2040s.

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