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
Popular
Old White Truck / Flickr

The Last Straw? EU Official Hints Ban on Single-Use Plastic Across Europe

A top EU official hinted that legislation to cut plastic waste in Europe is coming soon.

Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, made the comment after Britain's environment minister Michael Gove, a pro-Brexiter, suggested that staying in the EU would make it harder for the UK to create environmental laws such as banning plastic drinking straws.

Keep reading... Show less
Flare from gas well. Ken Doerr / Flickr

Court Orders Trump Administration to Enforce Obama-Era Methane Rule

A federal judge reinstated a widely supported methane waste rule that President Trump's administration has repeatedly tried to stop.

Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court for Northern California ruled Thursday that Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) decision to suspend core provisions of the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule was "untethered to evidence."

Keep reading... Show less
On Jan. 24, 2017 President Donald Trump signed a memorandum to expedite the Keystone XL permitting process. Twitter | Donald Trump

Inside the Trump Admin's Fight to Keep the Keystone XL Approval Process Secret

By Steve Horn

At a Feb. 21 hearing, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Trump administration must either fork over documents showing how the U.S. Department of State reversed an earlier decision and ultimately came to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or else provide a substantial legal reason for continuing to withhold them. The federal government has an order to deliver the goods, one way or the other, by March 21.

Keep reading... Show less
Health

New Black Lung Epidemic Emerging in Coal Country

In a study released this month by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), federal researchers identified more than 400 cases of complicated black lung in three clinics in southwestern Virginia between 2013 and 2017—the largest cluster ever reported.

However, the actual number of cases is likely much, much higher as the government analysis relied on self-reporting. An ongoing investigation from NPR has counted nearly 2,000 cases diagnosed since 2010 across Appalachia.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Dennis Schroeder / NREL

The Facts About Trump’s Solar Tariffs – Who Gets Hurt? Who Gets Helped?

By John Rogers

The solar-related shoe we've been expecting has finally dropped: President Trump recently announced new taxes on imported solar cells and modules. There's plenty of downside to his decision, in terms of solar progress, momentum and jobs. But will it revive U.S. manufacturing?

Keep reading... Show less

Japan Confirms Oil From the Sanchi Is Washing Up On Its Beaches

By Andy Rowell

The Japanese Coast Guard has confirmed that the oil that is being washed up on islands in the south of the country is "highly likely" to have come from the stricken Iranian tanker, the Sanchi.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Dave Keeling

Is Constant Human Noise Stressing Out Wildlife?

By Jason Daley

A major study earlier this year showed something incredible. Looking at 492 protected areas in the U.S., researchers found that 62 percent of the parks, wilderness areas and green spaces were twice as loud as they should be. About 21 percent were 10 times as loud. Noise isn't just annoying—chronic exposure to traffic, generators and airplanes can lead to negative consequences for wildlife. Researchers like Nathan Kliest are just getting a handle on exactly how all that noise impacts animals. Kliest, formerly of the University of Colorado Boulder and now at SUNY Brockport, recently investigated the impact of chronic noise on birds in the Southwest.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
Activists campaigning to regulate glyphosate in the European Union. Avaaz / Flickr

Monsanto 'Commands' Civic Group to Turn in All Communications Over Glyphosate

Avaaz, a civic campaigning network that counts roughly 45 million subscribers around the world, has been served with a 168-page subpoena on behalf of agribusiness giant Monsanto.

The document, dated Jan. 26 and sent from New York Supreme Court, "commands" the U.S.-based organization to turn in a decade's worth of internal communications by Friday, Feb. 23.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!