Winter's sting: Intense weather suggests the climate is changing

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Global warming skeptics reacted with glee to the recent record snowfalls from the Midwest to states farther south. But the intensity of such storms and other severe weather does not refute climate warnings. Rather, it reinforces the likelihood that the world's climate is changing because of human activity -- and not for the better.

More than 21 inches of snow fell in Wichita, Kan., in February, breaking a century-old monthly record. More snow fell in one day in Amarillo, Texas, last month (19 inches) than it usually sees in a year (17.8 inches).

Then there was Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that ravaged the East Coast in October.

Is this proof that global warming is bunk? Hardly. Weather is not climate, and no single storm or season can prove or disprove climate change.

But recent trends fit a pattern that scientists say will mean less moisture in general, but more intense storms. There have been twice as many intense rain and snow events in the United States in the past 50 years as in the previous 60. At the same time, parts of the Midwest are having record droughts.

"Shorter snow season, less snow overall, but the occasional knockout punch," said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer. "That's the new world we live in."

The reason is simple. As everyone learns in Earth science, warmer-than-average air holds more moisture. When a front comes through with colder air, a lot of rain or snow results.

Most researchers accept the reality of man-made global warming. They differ about what should be done. But people in Amarillo, Wichita and along Hurricane Sandy's path know that climate change can't just be ignored.

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