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Deep freeze in the deep South | Why global warming is part of the conversation

Whenever it snows in Georgia, people start talking about global warming.

This year started off cold. Very cold. And for the past couple of days, metro Atlanta and North Georgia have been covered in snow and ice with temperatures in the teens.

This winter has been an average of 13 degrees colder than last winter. Last season we only saw a trace of snow at the Atlanta airport where we keep the official records. According to our 11Alive StormTrackers, Atlanta has picked up 4.6” of snow so far this season.

Even though we had an early snow in December, the month averaged 1.5 degrees above average. So far in January, we are 7.6 degrees below average.

At times during this snow storm, Atlanta was colder than Anchorage, Alaska. These are extreme temperatures for the South. When we posted that information on the 11Alive Facebook page, many comments were about global warming.

But it’s those extreme temperatures that point to the reality of climate change. That's the better term according to the director of the atmospheric science program at the University of Georgia Dr. Marshall Shepherd.

He said "climate change is a better term because it illustrates all of the changes that are happening, perhaps more intense hurricanes, even greater heat waves, more intense rain storms that lead to flooding. Those are all symptomatic of climate change, global warming is just one aspect of climate change in the same way that running a fever is one aspect of the flu, and that's how we have to try to convey this."

Dr. Shepherd said people have a hard time differentiating between weather and climate.

"It's very important that people understand that climate change isn't defined by a cold day," he said.

"We have to look at what's happening globally, not just what's happening in our own backyard."

Globally, 2017 was the second and third hottest year on record, according to the NOAA and NASA. They made that announcement Thursday saying the earth's longtime warming trend is continuing.

Dr. Shepherd said data from scientists around the world shows the climate is warming.

"Yes, our climate changes naturally but there is a human steroid on top of that change and that warming temperature has implications for our storms, heat waves, how hard it rains, sea level rise, etc.," he said.

With the geography of the state, he said Georgians are vulnerable to these changes, "when we talk about sea level rise on the coast, when we talk about intense rainfall that causes flooding in Atlanta or heat waves during the summer time."

Furthermore, he pointed to data that's still developing that shows, "a warming climate could lead to more cold, extreme cold events, such as blizzards."

"Its counter intuitive to people in the same way that many people don't understand that it can actually get cold in deserts but it does," he added.

Shepherd said these extreme cold temperatures, snow and ice are, simply put, winter. He said winter will continue to happen as the climate warms.

"You're just experiencing a normal winter...we're gonna always have snow storms.... we're gonna always have cold days in the wintertime. Climate signal is much larger than that."

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