No Connection Between Global Warming and North Dakota Floods

Published August 1, 1997

“While we cannot say with certainty that the flooding that is now occurring along the Red River signals the beginning of climate change, it is entirely consistent with the predicted effects. We can expect that a continued warming of the Earth’s atmosphere is likely to result in much more of such occurrences of extremely severe weather. . . . I think we can say, with some confidence, that there will be more cases like [the Red River flooding] as the Earth starts to warm.”

Assistant Secretary of State Eileen Claussen Earth Day, April 22, 1997

While the unfortunate residents of flood-ravaged North Dakota were cleaning up the muck left behind by last winter’s melting snow, climate change enthusiasts in far-away Washington were blaming the disaster on, of all things, global warming.

Eileen Claussen may have since left the State Department, but the idea that warming temperatures will lead to blizzards and thus to catastrophic floods is live and well at Foggy Bottom and other places where climatology is poorly understood. According to the theory embraced by Claussen, and echoed by President Clinton and Vice President Gore in their Earth Day addresses, the explanation for the Red River floods runs like this: Warmer air evaporates more water, a moister atmosphere produces more clouds and precipitation, more precipitation yields more blizzards, and the melting snow from those blizzards produces floods.

The logic may be compelling, but the premise is false, notes climatologist Patrick Michaels. He explains that in extremely high altitudes (say poleward of 70 degrees), the cold air is so dry that it’s impossible to get significant snowfall. That’s why the South Pole averages less than two feet of snow each year, he points out. But moving into the warmer middle latitudes, Michaels observers, “moisture is no longer the limiting factor–temperature is.”

Turning to Grand Forks, North Dakota, Michaels notes that since 1949, winter (December through March) temperatures have shown a statistically significant increase, from 8.5 degrees F to 13.5 degrees F. If one were to share Claussen’s view of the world, the warmer air should have produced increased amounts of snowfall. However, in plotting the relationship between snowfall and temperature in Grand Forks between 1949 and 1995, the correlation turns about to be negative and statistically significant. “In this region,” Michaels shows, “warmer winters have less snow than cold winters.”

Confirming Michaels’ observations, the winter of 1996-97 was extremely cold in the Grand Forks region with extraordinarily high amounts of snowfall.

“The people of North Dakota have suffered enough,” Michaels says, “they don’t need to be exploited in an Earth Day propaganda campaign.”

PF: For more information, see “Administration Snow Job in North Dakota,” World Climate Report, May 12, 1997. The two-page article is available through PolicyFax; call 847/202-4888 and request document #2329711.