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Those images of polar bears stranded atop tiny glaciers, looking very sad about their melting home in the North Pole, are phony, says radio host Rush Limbaugh. The lefty media created them to drive the discussion on global warming, which is also phony, he says.
You know what else is phony, says Limbaugh? The "polar vortex" chilling much of the country with record low temperatures (though not really colder ones than on Mars). The media is playing it up as an extreme, counterintuitive consequence of a warming planet as part of its global warming "hoax," Limbaugh said, when the polar blast really proves just the opposite.
"We are having a record-breaking cold snap in many parts of the country," he said during his Jan. 6 show. "And right on schedule the media have to come up with a way to make it sound like it’s completely unprecedented. Because they’ve got to find a way to attach this to the global warming agenda, and they have. It’s called the ‘polar vortex.’ The dreaded polar vortex."
"Do you know what the polar vortex is? Have you ever heard of it? Well, they just created it for this week."
Here’s part of how he broke it down for his audience:
"See, normally the polar vortex stays up there in the polar region, but something is causing it to dip down like it's never happened before. We've never had arctic air blasts before. And remember, now, the key to all this is you have to understand one of the fundamental concepts of man-made global warming is ice melting at the poles.
"One of the ways they have always sought to convince you that the world is warming is not the climate where you live, but rather where you aren't, where you can't see what is really happening. So they tell you the ice is melting at the North Pole and the South Pole. And then they publish pictures, which are fraudulent pictures, of poor little polar bears stranded on three square feet of ice that you are told used to be the North Pole.
"... Well, obviously there is no melting of ice going on at the North Pole. If they're gonna tell us the polar vortex is responsible for this cold, that means record cold is also happening in the North Pole, which means there isn't any ice melting."
We’ve heard several political commentators, errantly, call into question the validity of global warming given the week’s record-breaking low temperatures. Limbaugh takes it further, dubious of both global warming and the polar vortex itself.
PunditFact wanted to know: Does the unusual blast of cool air, which he says the media ginned up as the "dreaded polar vortex," disprove global warming?
"Polar vortex" may sound new to Limbaugh, journalists and anyone who is not a weather expert, but it’s not a term the media cooked up to scare you. It’s been part of the conversation in meteorology circles since at least the 1940s and ‘50s, experts told us.
The polar vortex is the region in the northern hemisphere that contains the planet’s cold or Arctic air. A warmer atmosphere lies outside of the vortex. The boundary between the regions is a jet stream of strong, fast-moving, frigid winds.
Sometimes the jet stream is more symmetrical, encircling the polar region in an oval without many bumps. Other times, especially this week, its rotation breaks off into deep troughs, ushering cold air to the south. A polar outbreak occurs in areas that have big drops in temperature, where the polar vortex has dipped pronouncedly south.
This jet stream has become more wavy in the last five years, sending more cold air to the eastern U.S. and eastern Asia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"It has been with us for eons," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "It will be with us for eons to come."
Now, whether this week’s polar outbreak is a result of global warming is a matter of active scientific debate. Rutgers University climate researcher Jennifer Francis co-authored a 2012 research paper arguing the loss of Arctic ice leads to more extremes -- not just more frigid winters for the east coast, but also record warm temperatures in Alaska, record drought in California, storms in the United Kingdom, and a warm winter for Scandinavia.
"This sort of jet stream pattern is what we expect to occur more often as the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the globe in response to increasing greenhouse gases," she said. "We can't say this particular event is caused by climate change, but it is becoming clearer that this sort of pattern should become more likely in the future."
On his show, Limbaugh skewered a Daily Beast article with the headline "Thank Global Warming for Freezing You Right Now," but the article actually couches the connection more than its flashy headline suggests: "As crazy as it sounds, global warming may be at least partly to blame. This particular aspect of climate change science is not yet definitive, but here's what may be going on."
Serreze says it is too early to tell whether one-time weather events like this polar outbreak are happening as a result of global warming.
That said, the polar outbreak definitely does not disprove that Arctic sea ice is not melting, as Limbaugh concludes.
Sea ice at the North Pole is obviously not melting right this second. That’s because it’s January, and the pole is in darkness all day and night.
But Arctic sea ice is almost at a record low for this time of year, Francis pointed out, even though it is up from 2012, the record low year. Scientists look at long-term trends, not annual shifts, to base their conclusions.
Alarm over shrinking sea ice is based on how the region is shedding more and more of it by the end of summer -- as less ice covers the Arctic Ocean, the ocean absorbs more warmth. Historically, ice covering the Arctic sea is twice as big as the continental United States by winter’s end in March, Serreze said. As the ocean warms, ice melts.
Around 1980, sea ice by summer’s end in September covered as much area as the contiguous United States, Serreze said. Lately, it’s shrunk to an area smaller than the size of the United States west of the Mississippi River.
"The long-term trend in Arctic sea ice is sharply downwards, and this trend has the capability to cause significant alterations in jet stream behavior that can cause an increase in both warm and cold extreme events in the winter," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.
Serreze labeled Limbaugh’s connection between the cold snap and sea ice as "absurd."
Limbaugh claimed the media made up the "polar vortex" to bolster global warming. What the cold snap does prove, he says, is Arctic sea ice is not melting -- that global warming is a hoax.
Climate scientists told us his rant is wildly misinformed.
The polar vortex has been a part of science for decades, and it certainly does not prove that sea ice is not melting.
We rate this Pants on Fire!
Interview with Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences research professor, Jan. 7, 2014
Interview with Jeff Masters, Weather Underground, Jan. 7, 2014
Interview with Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Jan. 7, 2014
CNN International, "Frigid air from the North Pole: What’s this polar vortex?" Jan. 6, 2014
The Daily Beast, "Thank global warming for freezing you right now," Jan. 6, 2014
Transcript of The Rush Limbaugh Show, "Left Creates ‘Polar Vortex’ to Make You Think Winter is Caused by Global Warming," Jan. 6, 2014
Mother Jones, "Dear Donald Trump, winter does not disprove global warming," Jan. 2, 2014
National Sea and Ice Data Center, Quick facts about Arctic sea ice, accessed Jan. 7, 2014
Climate Central, "Polar Vortex in U.S. May be Example of Global Warming," Jan. 6, 2014
National Weather Service, weather forecast for country, Jan. 7, 2014
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "Warm air, cold continents," accessed Jan. 7, 2014
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "What’s going on with the polar vortex?" Jan. 6, 2014
Washington Post, "The polar vortex in no way disproves climate change," Jan. 7, 2014
Mediaite, "Weatherman Debunks Limbaugh’s ‘Polar Vortex’ Conspiracy Theory," Jan. 7, 2014
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