Climate Change Weather: Why is It Snowing in May and Does It Have Anything to Do With Global Warming?


On Friday morning I woke up to birds chirping and snow lightly falling outside my window. Since it’s early May, and even Iowa’s strange weather patterns are not so bizarre as to make spring snowfall a given, one of those things seemed incongruous. As I write this, about two or three inches of snow are on the ground, and all across the Midwest, people are confused and cold: this is not a light dusting of snow, this is winter wonderland material

What gives? 

My natural predisposition to apocalyptic predictions makes me see this freezing surprise as an indicator of the strange weather patterns that have surfaced in the last several years, the result of terrible disaster due to climate change. Of course, the Midwest is also notorious for just having some strange weather.

Which begs the question: is this climate change, or just weird?

Of course, snow is the least of the freaky weather patterns that have materialized in the last couple of years. Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events have become practically commonplace. And as PBS reports, there is more and more evidence that weather in places like the United States is somewhat a result of rapid warming far to the north in the Arctic.

So what gives? Is this a harbinger of greater weird weather to come, or just a strange fluke in an area (the Midwest) known for erratic weather patterns? Minnesota meteorologist Paul Huttner (whose location seems to make him uniquely qualified for answering weird weather questions) says that while this weather is strange, it would be a bit of a stretch to call spring snow a direct result of climate change. In his own words:

“If you're going to tie a link to today's weather to climate change you would have to cite Arctic amplification. We've touched on that before. That's where this slower jet stream gets stuck. It slows down and these blocking patterns set up and our weather patterns get stuck. That's what's been happening a lot in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest this spring. Some links that this may be tied to the warmer Arctic Ocean that we saw last summer.” 

Translation: it’s weird, but not directly related to climate change. Weather is immensely volatile and connected to patterns around the world: even a slight change (like Arctic amplification) might contribute to this different weather patterns. 

Either way, this snow is part of a broader pattern in changing weather. For the time being, directly connected to climate change or not, the snow in May is not going away.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to shovel my sidewalk.