Quantcast
Climate

Does Polar Vortex Mean 'So Much for Global Warming'?

Over the past couple of months, the U.S. has seen the return of something many believed had been lost for good: cold weather.

Although the current temperatures in the eastern U.S. may seem unusually cold, in the context of our history they really aren’t. In fact, most of the cold that has made the news lately hasn’t been all that chilly compared what was “normal” for the 20th century. The AP explained our short-term memory loss in this article, Scientists: Americans are becoming weather wimps, the nerdy web comic XKCD captured the sentiment even more concisely.

The bottom line? Because the last decade was the hottest on record (and just a year ago, the U.S. saw its warmest year ever) Americans have grown accustomed to warmer winters that make normal cold feel extreme.

Some then wonder why this winter has been so (normally) cold and why temperatures in Peoria this winter have not been warmed by climate change to, say, a balmy 60 degrees F. The climate denial bubble claims that the cold winter weather means that surely CO2 cannot be warming the atmosphere. How can there be global warming if it’s snowing outside, after all?

Well, the short answer is that cold winters still happen even in a warmed world, but that doesn’t mean it’s cold everywhere. In fact, we don’t even have to leave the U.S. to find a very striking image of warming. We just have to shift our attention from the East to the West Coast. Alaska, usually snowy and frigid, has had two weeks of record high temperatures. Amazingly, the second half of January has averaged 40 degrees F above normal during some days in the central and western parts of the state.

The persistently jagged jet stream we have witnessed in recent weeks has led most recently to what some have termed a “Drunken Arctic.” Stumbling south with polar winds and snow, this unexpected meteorological event seems to have caught our collective attention. And why shouldn’t it? It is an unusual enough, if not unprecedented, event. And it has rekindled curiosity over how human-caused climate change may be impacting the jet stream and the weather systems associated with it.

So, is there a climate connection to this strange occurrence? While more study is certainly needed, I have been increasingly impressed by the growing body of evidence supporting the hypothesis that climate change may lead to more persistent meanders in the jet stream. In a world without global warming, the temperature difference between the freezing Arctic and warmer lower latitudes creates a pressure field that confines the jet stream to a relatively tight band around the Arctic, with wave-like meanders characterized by ephemeral “ridges” and “troughs.” As the Arctic melts and warms, however, that temperature difference is reduced, and the meanders of the jet stream potentially become more pronounced and more sluggish. The more sluggish and persistent those meanders, the more persistent the patterns of regional warmth where the jet stream pulls warm air northward, and the regional cold where it pulls arctic air south. 

Looking at this image of temperature deviations we can see how the Arctic, in its “drunken” meandering, has fallen head over heels, hitting the southeastern U.S. like an over-enthusiastic reveler face-planting in the gutter shortly after closing time. The large purple region over the eastern U.S. represents weather 20 degrees F colder than the 1979-2000 average. Compare that to the massive red expanse over Alaska and Canada, which indicates weather 20 degrees F warmer than the same baseline.

Perfectly encapsulating the upside-down, hung-over Arctic is this remarkable observation, courtesy of Jeff Masters of the popular Weather Underground blog: At 10 p.m. on Jan. 26 the temperature in Homer, Alaska (54 degrees F) was warmer than any other place in the contiguous U.S. except southern Florida and southern California.

As we approach Groundhog Day, celebrated in the iconic nearby town of Punxsutawney, the question we’re all asking here in central Pennsylvania of whether or not we’ll see an extended winter may in fact depend on what is happening instead thousands of miles to the north in the melting Arctic.

And the very same jet stream configuration responsible for the southward plunging Arctic air mass that chilling the eastern U.S. is associated further to the west with a “ridge” of high pressure that is pushing the warm, moist subtropical Pacific air masses that would normally deliver plentiful rainfall (and snowpack) to California well to the north.

Climate scientists were beginning to suspect a decade ago that the dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice might alter the jet stream in precisely this way, favoring conditions eerily like what we are seeing right now in California: unprecedented and devastating drought.

So to conclude, I propose a toast to the Arctic, whose instability should serve as a wake-up call to those steeped in denial. When it comes to kicking our “fossil fuel addiction” (as former president George W. Bush referred to it), let’s hope we’re not much further from hitting rock bottom. Because when a drunken Arctic leaves Alaska warmer than Georgia in mid-winter, and California as high and dry as it has ever been, we should know we may have a problem. 

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Rice University marine biologist Adrienne Correa takes samples at a reef in Flower Garden Banks. Jesse Cancelmo / Rice University

Hurricane Harvey Runoff Threatens Coral Reefs

Hurricane Harvey's record rains didn't just unleash a torrent of floodwaters into the Gulf of Mexico—this freshwater could be harming coral reefs which require saltwater to live, according to new research.

After Harvey dumped more than 13 trillion gallons of rain over southeast Texas, researchers detected a 10 percent drop in salinity at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located 100 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas.

Keep reading... Show less

Pruitt Wants to Make the EPA Less Accountable to the Public

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breaks the law by missing deadlines, allowing polluters to violate regulations that protect our health and environment, one way the public holds it accountable is by taking the agency to court. Scott Pruitt and his corporate polluter allies see this as a problem, so Monday, the administrator moved to curtail the agency's practice of settling lawsuits with outside groups, making it easier to skirt the law.

"Pruitt's doing nothing more than posturing about a nonexistent problem and political fiction," John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air program said in reaction. "His targeting of legal settlements, especially where EPA has no defense to breaking the law, will just allow violations to persist, along with harms to Americans."

Keep reading... Show less
Oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Julie Dermansky

Nearly 400,000 Gallons of Oil Spews Into Gulf of Mexico, Could Be Largest Spill Since Deepwater Horizon

Last week, a pipe owned by offshore oil and gas operator LLOG Exploration Company, LLC spilled up to 393,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, reminding many observers of the Deepwater Horizon explosion seven years ago that spewed approximately 210 million gallons of crude into familiar territory.

Now, a report from Bloomberg suggests that the LLOG spill could be the largest in the U.S. since the 2010 BP blowout, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

Keep reading... Show less
Shutterstock

Big Food Is Worried About Millennials Avoiding Animal Products

By Nathan Runkle

Hundreds of leaders from fast-food chains, marketing agencies and poultry production companies recently gathered in North Carolina for the 2017 Chicken Marketing Summit to play golf and figure out how to make you eat more animals.

One session focused on marketing chicken to millennials. Richard Kottmeyer, a senior managing partner at Fork to Farm Advisory Services, explained to the crowd that millennials are "lost" and need to be "inspired and coached." His reasoning? Because there are now "58 ways to gender identify on Facebook." Also, because most millennial women take nude selfies, the chicken industry needs to be just as "naked" and transparent.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Strange Days: Ex-Hurricane Ophelia Batters Ireland Under Orange Skies

By Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

Ex-Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland hard with full hurricane-like fury on Monday, bringing powerful winds that caused widespread damage and power outages. At least two deaths have been reported from trees falling on cars, and The Irish Times said at least 360,000 ESB Networks customers lost power in Ireland because of the storm.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
PBouman / Shutterstock

EPA Limits Use of Problematic Herbicide Dicamba—But Is That Enough?

By Dan Nosowitz

Dicamba has been in use as a local pesticide for decades, but it's only recently that Monsanto has taken to using it in big, new ways. The past two years have seen the rollout of dicamba-resistant seed for soybean and cotton, as well as a new way to apply it: broad spraying.

But dicamba, it turns out, has a tendency to vaporize and drift with the wind, and it if lands on a farm that hasn't planted Monsanto's dicamba-resistant seed, the pesticide will stunt and kill crops in a very distinctive way, with a telltale cupping and curling of leaves, as seen above. Drift from dicamba has affected millions of acres of crops, prompting multiple states to issue temporary bans on the pesticide. Farmers have been taking sides, either pro-dicamba or anti, and at least one farmer has been killed in a dispute over its use.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Runoff from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Lynn Betts / U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Drinking Water for Millions in Rural America Contaminated With Suspected Carcinogen

Drinking water supplies for millions of Americans in farm country are contaminated with a suspected cancer-causing chemical from fertilizer, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

The contaminant is nitrate, which gets into drinking water sources when chemical fertilizer or manure runs off poorly protected farm fields. Nitrate contaminates drinking water for more than 15 million people in 49 states, but the highest levels are found in small towns surrounded by row-crop agriculture. Major farm states where the most people are at risk include California, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas.

Keep reading... Show less
www.youtube.com

Trump's Approval Rating on Hurricane Response Sinks 20 Points After Puerto Rico

President Trump's approval rating for overseeing the federal government's response to hurricanes fell by 20 points after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS revealed.

Trump's approval rating for responding to hurricanes Harvey and Irma stood at 64 percent in mid-September. Just a month later, the rating dropped to 44 percent.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox