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FactCheck: The recent cold spell is not evidence against climate change

Ireland has seen significant rising temperatures overall

CLIMATE CHANGE CAUSED by the release of greenhouse gases will trap energy in the Earth’s atmosphere and make the planet hotter overall, however that does not mean that cold spells show that climate change is not happening.

Following the cold snap that hit western Europe, disrupting flights and making pathways  impassable with ice in Ireland, some claims have spread online suggesting this is evidence against climate change.

“Anyone know where the climate protesters have all gone?” One post read. “Thought we had to worry about global warming? Funny how they only appear when the weather is nice and warm.”

Of course, protesters in favour of action of the climate have still been active in the cold weather.

However, let’s focus on the more important issue: if climate change is warming the atmosphere, why do we still experience drastic weather like the recent cold spell? And will we continue to into the future?

“Weather and climate are fundamentally different concepts and should not be conflated,” Emeritus Professor John Sweeney of the Maynooth University Geography Department told The Journal. “Climate is a representation of average weather conditions usually over a period of several years, typically 30.

“There is no contradiction between a short cold spell and the climate trend and it is both erroneous and sometimes disingenuous to suggest this.”

However, even for those wishing to conflate weather and climate, Ireland’s recent weather would still be a poor example to use.

“The recent cold spell was colder than we have experienced for a few winters, but not exceptional,” Sweeney said.

Some Irish social media commentators and columnists have suggested that meteorologists were trying to “catastrophise” normal weather by issuing warnings; however, the warnings issued during the cold snap did not imply that the weather was particularly rare. 

The yellow warning is specifically for weather that is “not unusual” but which can cause “localised danger”, while the orange warning is for infrequent, dangerous weather.

These are issued to urge people to take caution during storms, which have injured and killed people in Ireland.

“Global warming does not prevent cold periods,” Paul Moore, a climatologist with Met Éireann told The Journal. “The north pole is colder than Ireland and sometimes the weather systems align to drag that northern cold air down over Ireland. One such weather pattern in winter, which allows cold Polar air masses to be pushed southwards over north-western Europe, is high latitude blocking over Greenland.

“This is what happened during the first half of December this year and during our last very cold December in 2010, Ireland’s coldest December on record.”

Moore also provided The Journal a series of graphs showing the temperature of the coldest night of each year going back to 1940 for six weather stations.

“While cold events regularly occur, the long-term changing trend of these suggests that they are not as severe in Ireland now as they were in the past,” Moore said.

“It is beyond doubt that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. This leads to a greater probability that a season or month will have above normal temperatures.

“Indeed the last 18 consecutive months in Ireland have seen above normal temperatures.”

Data from Met Éireann also indicates that the frequency of notably cold nights and days is decreasing, while that of notably warm days and nights is increasing. 

“Some research suggests that blocking of the jet streams may increase the frequency of both warm and cold extremes,” Prof. Sweeney told The Journal. “But the recent brief cold outbreak of polar air would not be anything out of line with Ireland’s climate past present or future.”


Suggestions that a cold spell indicates that climate change is not happening are MISLEADING.

As per our verdict guide, this means the claim either intentionally or unintentionally misleads readers.

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here