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Posted at 10:20 AM ET, 02/ 7/2011

The winter the Arctic shifted south

By Andrew Freedman

Last week, Chicagoans were treated to one of that city's worst blizzards of all time. Featuring several rounds of thundersnow - a relatively rare phenomena that has been in abundant supply this winter, making appearances in D.C., New York, Boston, and now Chicago - winds gusting to between 50 and 70 miles per hour, and upwards of 20 inches of snowfall, the storm paralyzed one of the most battle tested cities for dealing with wintry onslaughts.

The eerie sight of hundreds of stranded and abandoned cars along Lakeshore Drive, a scene straight out of the global warming disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow," must've made New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration was roundly criticized for botching cleanup efforts after the "Boxing Day Blizzard" in December, feel satisfied that it's not just the Big Apple that can be snarled by a snowstorm.

True, the massive storm system that brought snow, strong winds, and icy conditions to areas from New Mexico to Maine, largely spared the D.C. area from its most significant impacts, disappointing snow lovers - as have other major storms this year (well except for that one...).

However, between this blizzard, and the parade of east coast snowstorms that have dropped so much snow on the northeast that local news coverage in southern New England of late has been dominated by reports of roof collapses, this is certainly shaping up to be a winter to remember.

Yet for a key region of the globe, it's actually proving to be a remarkably warm winter so far, which, believe it or not, may help explain why it's been so cold and snowy in the U.S.

Many cities, including Boston, Hartford, New York, and Philadelphia have already surpassed their typical annual snowfall totals, and officials in several cities and towns in southern New England are contemplating dumping additional snow directly into waterways, despite the environmental damage that may cause.

The snowstorms have also been accompanied by outbreaks of very cold air. According to statistics compiled by HAMweather, between January 30 and Feb. 5, 489 low temperature records were set in the U.S., along with 792 records for the lowest high temperature. These records include a frigid -36 degree low temperature at Steamboat Springs, Colorado on Feb. 3 (I wouldn't advise skiing in such conditions), -42 F in Havre City Montana, and -21 F near Hamilton, Missouri. Other records were set from Texas to Massachusetts.

Such cold weather records dwarfed warm records during the same period, which goes against a long-running trend.

sea ice extent jan 2011.jpg
Arctic sea ice departure from average. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

There's a reason the weather has felt more typical of the Arctic than of the lower-48: the Arctic conditions have been on an extended sojourn here, having left the far north sometime in December. The Arctic itself was relatively mild in January. In fact, the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced that Arctic sea ice extent during January reached the lowest level on record for the month, with unusually low ice extent noted in Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, and Davis Strait.

"Normally, these areas freeze over by late November, but this year Hudson Bay did not completely freeze over until mid-January," NSIDC reported. "The Labrador Sea remains largely ice free."

According to NSIDC, Arctic air temperatures and sea ice conditions were significantly affected by the configuration of a natural climate pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation, or AO. The AO, which is closely related to the North Atlantic Oscillation or NAO, refers to opposing pressure patterns in middle and high northern latitudes.

Jan Arctic pressures vs normal.jpg
Pressures (or heights) at around 5,000 feet (or 850 mb) over the Arctic. Pressures/heights have been higher than average over the Arctic. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

When the AO is in a "negative phase," there is a region with relatively high pressure located over the polar region, and lower pressure at the midlatiudes. In a "positive phase", the pattern is reversed, with lower pressure in the polar region, and higher pressure in the midlatitudes.

The AO, as well as the NAO, significantly influence the extent to which cold air gets pushed south into North America and Europe, as well as the predominant storm track.

As this web page details, "In the positive phase, frigid winter air does not extend as far into the middle of North America as it would during the negative phase of the oscillation. This keeps much of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains warmer than normal, but leaves Greenland and Newfoundland colder than usual. Weather patterns in the negative phase are in general "opposite" to those of the positive phase..."

Ah, if only we were in Nunavut

During much of this winter so far, with the exception of late January and early February, the AO and the NAO were in an extremely negative phase. This helped drive cold air into the U.S. and favored a storm track up the northeastern coastline. While these storms taunted D.C. snow-lovers and plastered New York and Boston with heavy snow, they swept mild air into Greenland and parts of northeastern Canada. An unusually strong blocking pattern was also in place over Greenland, which helped maintain this storm track week after week.

The Arctic warmth during early January was astoundingly pronounced, as occasional CWG contributor Robert Henson reported:

To put this picture into even sharper focus, let's take a look at Coral Harbour, located at the northwest corner of Hudson Bay in the province of Nunavut. On a typical mid-January day, the town drops to a low of -34°C (-29.2°F) and reaches a high of just -26°C (-14.8°F). Compare that to what Coral Harbour actually experienced in the first twelve days of January 2011, as reported by Environment Canada.
  • After New Year's Day, the town went 11 days without getting down to its average daily high.
  • On the 6th of the month, the low temperature was -3.7°C (25.3°F). That's a remarkable 30°C (54°F) above average. [emphasis added]
  • On both the 5th and 6th, Coral Harbor inched above the freezing mark. Before this year, temperatures above 0°C (32°F) had never been recorded in the entire three months of January, February, and March.

(Conditions in Coral Harbour have since cooled down considerably, related to the flipping of the Arctic Oscillation back into a positive phase).

Climate scientists are studying the interaction between the diminishing sea ice cover in the Arctic and changes to air circulation patterns in the northern hemisphere. Although this is far from an open and shut case, some studies show there may be a connection between the diminishing sea ice cover, which allows more heat to escape into the atmosphere, may be altering wintertime weather patterns in such a way that harsh winters are becoming more likely in parts of the U.S. and Europe.

If additional studies bolster this finding, and such trends continue, it would have to be one of the most paradoxical manifestations of climate change. Here we have an Arctic region that is being literally transformed by warming and melting ice, and yet in the northern midlatitudes, that translates to colder and snowier winters? How strange.

Then again, stranger things have happened. Just ask residents of Coral Harbour, Nunavut.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | February 7, 2011; 10:20 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Latest, News & Notes, Science  
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Coral Harbor can be found here:

1959 in the link above has the closest high to zero in January (-0.6 reached on the 17th and 18th). There a couple other years with highs in the low single digits below zero: Feb 47, 55, 59, Jan 77, and others. The records appear to go back to 1945.

So 50+ degrees F above average is fairly rare but not unheard of.

Posted by: eric654 | February 7, 2011 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Here's a typical paper from the late 90's to early 00's with the idea that positive AO is a predicted manifestation of global warming: In the early to mid 90's (with a brief timeout for Pinatubo), AO had shown a positive spurt: That positiveness was attributed to global warming.

Now we have a climate change change: negative AO is being attributed to global warming. I have yet to see a single paper that explains why the models did not predict this.

Posted by: eric654 | February 7, 2011 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Andrew, great post. If this theory about ice loss and cold winters is true, wouldn't the Arctic warming trend eventually destroy the cold air supply needed to keep Europe and North America colder-than-normal in the winter? I wish we had Arctic ice extent data from the 1800s when we had very cold North American and European winters too.

I noticed that temperatures this morning are in the -50s in the upper Nunavut!

Posted by: MattRogers1 | February 7, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

@Matt -- this is just idle speculation, but isn't the ice a consequence of the fact that it's dark over the north pole for six (?) months? Seems to me the lack of solar warming creates the cold which creates the ice, not the other way around.

Posted by: AdmiralX | February 7, 2011 11:47 AM | Report abuse

i like it! i consider it more of a fluke that we've been largely missed this year, but i'm all for colder winters in dc - with the assumption it means more snow.

what's happening here with the AGW's prediction of the state of the oscillations is that AGW theory is improving.

people may have been too quick to attribute things to GW. so what? besides, in that paper they identified the trend and said it's said "possibly" associated w/global warming. anyway, as we figure out this AO/NAO counter-intuitive result, and incorporate the new knowledge into AGW theory, the theory gets better. it's how it works. also, this is just one or two winters of this (neg NAO/GW) happening, right? it could be a "weather thing" instead of a "climate thing".

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 7, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

TBD, is saying that there is still a "possibility" for snow Thursday!!! My SNOWHOPE, is at about a 5, on a scale of 10.. I thank the Snow Gods for Doug Hill.. "OPERATION SNOWHOPE" is still going strong!! It seems rather challenging, for meteorologist in the DC area. The weather in the DC area, is just so temperate, and unpredictable.

Posted by: BELLASNOWQUEEN | February 7, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

That makes sense, AdmiralX, but I think Andrew's point is that the ice is significantly reduced before the winter rebuild period and that could be leading to the warmer conditions in the high latitudes and then the blocking (AO) patterns.

When I look at the sea ice extent data in the autumn though, I have a difficult time believing such relatively small year-on-year differences can create such fantastic, record-breaking blocking indexes.

Posted by: MattRogers1 | February 7, 2011 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Hi Matt - I'm not sure the supply of "Arctic air" would get exhausted, but certainly if Arctic warming were to continue to take place in the winter, there might be less very cold air around to spill down into the midlatitudes.

Also, once the extremely negative AO/NAO shifted into the positive phase towards the end of January, temps in Nunavut and other parts of Canada tumbled towards more normal levels for this time of year. Greenland, however, still seems to be running warmer than average, although I have not examined many stations in detail there lately to confirm that cursory observation.

Scientists have been working to extend sea ice records back to before the submarine and satellite eras, and most estimates show that the recent decline has been unprecedented. But you're right, it would be enormously helpful to have more solid data on what conditions were like during past cold winters, and during the past in general given the limitations of only a 1979+ satellite record.

Posted by: afreedma | February 7, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Unrelated but extremely relevant to the usability of this website: In Chrome on my PCs and every browser I have tried on my android devices, your main page auto-refreshes every few seconds, which makes me curse and then leave the site without getting any information. Please fix!

Thanks and keep up the good (meteorological) work.

Posted by: thiazzi | February 7, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

It's thought that a mild, ice-free Arctic Ocean and cold continents were prevalent during the Ice Ages.

With so much ice locked up in continental glaciers, the Beringian land bridge between Asia and North America was open and largely ice-free. Great Britain and Ireland were a large peninsula attached to the continent of Europe by a land bridge where the English Channel and North Sea are presently located, and the Thames was a large tributary of the Rhine. The undersea channels of the Thames and the Rhine join underneath the English Channel.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | February 7, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

i've heard about land bridges and all - and that makes sense given all that water being locked up in ice caps. i've not heard the notion of a "mild, ice-free arctic ocean" during ice ages.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 7, 2011 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Nunavit is not a Province, it's a Territory, formerly part of the Northwest Territories.

Posted by: RAB2 | February 7, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Hi Walter, here's my guess FWIW. The change from positive to negative AO is natural in origin, likewise the blocking (negative NAO). These natural conditions are altered in various ways by AGW, sometimes damped and sometimes enhanced and we don't have the formulas yet. For one thing, the Arctic hasn't been ice free long enough to get a good read of the effects. It's also possible that the negative AO/NAO is caused by AGW, but there's no long term trend to match up with AGW, just fluctuations.

Posted by: eric654 | February 7, 2011 1:05 PM | Report abuse

RAB2: Thx for pointing out the error. Cheers - A

Posted by: afreedma | February 7, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

What strikes me most is that, should additional studies confirm that colder/snowier winters in mid-latitudes are a "paradoxical" consequence of of climate change (warming Arctic), it's manifestation was not anticipated by climate scientists and climate models. The studies cited by Andrew appear as after the fact explanations/rationalizations.

As Walter suggests, chock it up to increasing the store of knowledge and understanding of climate change. The issues now are whether the last couple winters are flukes - randomness (chaos) in the noise of weather (inter-seasonal AO variability) or a systematic influence of longer term (decadel, at least) climate change. If the latter, it likely renders many previous claims of regional aspects of global climate change null and void (such as I've long suspected for different reasons, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States -

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 7, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Matt - it may matter quite a bit which parts of the Arctic have particularly low sea ice conditions going into the fall and winter, rather than looking at the year-to-year differences in overall sea ice extent. That's one of the things researchers are focusing on, anyway.

Posted by: afreedma | February 7, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

i've often been wary of scientists' specific predictions of the complex second-(or third or fourth)order consequences of AGW. it's one thing to say that overall the earth will warm. it's another to say it will rain more (or less) in washington as a result.

nunavit sounds none-too-fit for human habitation.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 7, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Walter:

"i've often been wary of scientists' specific predictions of the complex second-(or third or fourth)order consequences of AGW. it's one thing to say that overall the earth will warm. it's another to say it will rain more (or less) in washington as a result."

As a lay-person I think it is interesting when a prediction fails to happen we sum it by saying "it all makes sense now and our science is getting better". But as a student of history I know that science rarely gets anything right the first or second time around - so I get it.

I was asked the other day if there was any measuable observation that would disprove man-made climate change. Are there any?

Posted by: Vingold | February 7, 2011 5:34 PM | Report abuse

In the places where people live (US, Europe, populated areas of Russia, Japan, China, etc.) it has been a cold winter.

Most of the so called warm areas have been where there are few if any weather stations, over the oceans and in northern Siberia, where no one lives.

I think that is a bit suspect and in line with those who have a vested financial interest in global warming.

Posted by: frontieradjust | February 7, 2011 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Temperature-wise, isn't this pretty much the same pattern....and the same blocking we had last winter? The storm tracka, of course, are a little different this year, with the D.C. area missing some of the largest storms both to the north and south. last year, of course, D.C. was right in the center of the path of the worst storms.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | February 7, 2011 6:00 PM | Report abuse

When NE/Central Canada are relatively warm most the US is cold.

Next week, when it warms up over much of the US, it will be below average in NE/Central Canada.

That has nothing to do with global warming, it's the way weather works.

Posted by: frontieradjust | February 7, 2011 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Vingold, you askd,
"I was asked the other day if there was any measuable observation that would disprove man-made climate change. Are there any?"

of course there are. if temperatures were to actually start dropping - and continue to drop for 30 or 40 years - that might disprove it.

if those temperature drops were found to be not associated with NAO, PDO, ENSO etc - that might disprove AGW.

if scientists could trace the rising levels of co2 to something other than our burning of fossil fuels - that might disprove the "A" part of AGW.

make no mistake: temps are rising and humans are causing it. the part i'm wary of is when scientists say it will cause a drought here, be bad for crops there, or cause more snow in falls church etc... those specific, local effects are much more poorly understood than the basic physics of greenhouse gases.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 7, 2011 8:34 PM | Report abuse

frontier adjust wrote:
"In the places where people live (US, Europe, populated areas of Russia, Japan, China, etc.) it has been a cold winter."

This is not true of Western Europe. Here in Hamburg there was a prolonged cold spell two weeks running up to Christmas. After that the weather took a distinct movement in the other direction. My amateur prediction is that the records will show a warmer winter again this year after the record set just last year.

Today it's 6°C+ and seems to be holding.
Chris Brown (P.S. people live here)

Posted by: chrisbrown12 | February 8, 2011 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Vingold asked, "I was asked the other day if there was any measuable observation that would disprove man-made climate change. Are there any?"

The answer to your question can be found in this youtube video. It is near the midpoint of the video. ;)

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 9, 2011 12:57 AM | Report abuse

Coffin, meet nail.

James Delingpole comments about this latest blow to the RC crew and the bastardization of peer review. I am inclined to mostly agree with him. The full depth of the corruption of the peer review process that was revealed by the climategate emails was one of the most disturbing revelations of that fiasco.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 9, 2011 1:05 AM | Report abuse

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