Any science fiction writer placing a story in the near future pretty much needs to mention that most overworked term these days: “climate change”. We can build expected changes into the future environment, or we can say it all turned out to be a hoax, but ignoring it entirely will probably make readers think we screwed up. There’s a big risk either way you call it, though, because those in the “hoax” camp will probably look like fools before many more years have passed, while those who try to predict the changes have a really tough challenge ahead of them.

As if predicting the future wasn’t already an exercise in masochism.

Most analysts who try to guess how countries will cope with climate change have painted a fairly rosy picture of my home country of Canada. After all, warmer temperatures will extend our growing season, give us hot summers and warmer winters, increase tourism and immigration, right? Not to mention thirsty markets for our abundant fresh water. Except the winter of 2013-2014 showed a different side of climate change. And this year is following the same frightening path so far, leading Canadians to stock up on Valium or booze, whichever is most likely to preserve our sanity through a winter that just won’t end.

So how do warming global temperatures add up to longer, more vicious winters?

The Jet Stream is a huge westerly current of air caused by the rotation of the Earth, and it affects virtually all of our weather in the Northern Hemisphere. Well, it’s been going all wavy lately, allowing Arctic air to flow much farther south than it ever should, bringing record cold and brutal early winter storms (just do a Google Image search for “Buffalo snowfall”). A new study published in Nature Geoscience blames the disappearing Arctic ice pack: larger amounts of dark water (instead of white ice) absorb more sunlight and the warmer air above it pushes the Jet Stream far to the north, but the downswing of that new loop extends much farther south. The loop to the south can sometimes allow Arctic air to flow all the way to the southern U.S.. And the effect isn’t in any hurry to move on, so these unusual cold snaps can last for weeks. A good summary can be found here.

I’ve read other explanations, but the effect is the same: foot-long nose icicles and citizens ready to strangle each other by March.

There’s a good chance that some of the results of warming temperatures will be pleasant ones. We can only hope. Because if these harsher winters do become the new normal, winter-weary Canadians and New Englanders won’t even be able to make our usual desperate escape to Florida for a few months.

’Cause most of it will be under water.