Why This Winter is So Crazily Warm

By Veronique Greenwood | January 12, 2012 8:12 am

Spring! Not.

Across the US, this winter has been unusually balmy, with precious little snow, or even rain, and with trees taking the warmth as a cue to send out new leaves in January. Temperature data support those impressions: in the first week of the year, temperatures were 40 degrees F higher than average in some parts of the Midwest, Discovery News reports, and snow cover is at 19 percent across the country, compared to an average of 50 percent at this time of year. In notoriously chilly Fargo, North Dakota, the January 4 high temperature of 55 broke the record for the warmest January day on record, and the country has seen close to no rain or snow in this first week of 2012, writes Wunderground meteorologist Jeff Masters. “It has been remarkable to look at the radar display day after day and see virtually no echoes,” he writes, referring to the radar echoes reflected back by storms. “It is very likely that this has been the driest first week of January in U.S. recorded history.”

Why this freaky weather? The answer is, basically, an extremely unusual jet stream over the last few months, Masters explains. The jet stream that defines weather in North America is controlled by the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation, climate patterns that reflect differences in sea-level pressure across certain stretches of the globe. And the pressure differences this year have been tremendous—for the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), this year saw the most extreme difference ever recorded in December, and the second most extreme for the Arctic Oscillation (AO).

This positive pressure difference has drawn warm air from the southwest over the Eastern US, rather than the usual chilly air from the Arctic. Last winter’s pressure differences were gigantic as well, but in the opposite, negative direction, so lots of cold air poured down and we had tons of snow. In fact, the last six years have been generally strange for the Arctic Oscillation, with the two most extreme negative values and two most extreme positive values on record.

But why?, you ask. Why have these oscillations been so weird? Unfortunately, Masters writes, we don’t really know why these variations happen. Addressing the elephant in the room—I’m looking at you, climate change—he says, “Climate models are generally too crude to make skillful predictions on how human-caused climate change may be affecting the AO, or what might happen to the AO in the future.” But he notes that there are links between solar activity and sunspots and positive values and between arctic sea ice loss and negative values. Whether this year’s strong positives are related to sunspots, though, isn’t clear.

Image courtesy of subflux / flickr

  • Brett

    I think the NAO and AO needs to be put on some kinda mood stabilizer seems pretty bipolar to me lol… Lets just hope it regulates and this is just a freak period of time… I know here in tx we has little to no rain for months and fields dried up, and fires were at the backdoor . Mother nature is just going through a change and we sure are not helping it out .

  • Aidan

    Mmm, up here in Canada we’ve had very little snow/cold as well, and let’s be honest, we’re notorious for our cold weather :O

  • blindboy

    Whereas in eastern Australia we had our coolest ever December

  • stargene

    It’s slick and supple how Masters skated out from under the obvious and
    cleverly cast doubt on the accuracy of climate models, those nefarious
    engines of mendacity cooked up by those scheming climatologists who
    merely want more grant money. Somebody on Wall Street should have
    told those poor guys science was not the way to fame and fortune.

    But repubs and fossil fuel magnates will love the touching implication
    that it may all just be due to sunspots. Phew! Keep up the good work.

  • http://newxsfc.blogspot.com/ NEWxSFC

    “The jet stream that defines weather in North America is controlled by the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation, climate patterns that reflect differences in sea-level pressure across certain stretches of the globe.”:

    This is exactly backward. The AO and NAO are statistical artifacts of global wind and pressure fields at mid and high latitudes.

  • Catherine

    finally cold here in Charleston, WV (yes we have internet) 19 degrees, windy & a few inches of snow. I think it’s the coldest it’s been here all winter, seems to have been pretty mild so far.

  • Big D

    I heart mild winter

  • Kat

    Nothing but warm weather here in north Texas. After months of brutal summer heat and over two months where the mercury peaked over 100, I was hoping for some cold, but it’s been consistently in the 50s and 60s. It looks like spring is coming early and it’ll probably be 90 again by March :(

  • Jayne Mullins

    Finally, snow here in Madison, WI, U.S. after record warm days….now, can I have back December and the neighbors’ please put their holiday lights back up?

  • sajesh

    In southern part of India too is unusually warm

  • Christi

    Well, in far west Texas, we had 3 bouts of snow by Christmas, which is absolutely NOT the norm for us. It’s finally back to the average temperatures. We were getting ready for a really cold winter this winter. Maybe it will be “normal.”

  • m

    don’t know where in Canada #2 lives, but it was minus 37C last night. uh – before windchill.

    good luck starting your car.

  • Rick

    Here in Far East CENTRAL Kansas .4 inches of snow the Norm, high is 35 deg,s but so far average high this winter have been 10 to 15 deg,s above norm. If this does not change and I mean soon because of the warm weather this will trend into VERY BAD weather for our spring up coming. So for the sake of the NO AND NAO IT WOULD BEHOVE it to change in a hurry. we had baseball size hail Tornadoes. We are so done with this. So warm weather right now is a B,I,G no and SUPER COLD IS A B,I,G, you bet. When its cold it takes time for it to warm up. SO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE SNOW AND COLD.

  • zachary

    I like how even with no evidence for anthropogenic effects, and evidence that ties solar activity to this patterns, the conclusion is still somehow up in the air. Come on people, that’s pathetic

  • Geack

    @ 4. Stargene,
    What good would it do to pretend this has something to do with AGW when the data suggest it doesn’t?

    Or maybe you’re being sarcastic?

  • Geack

    @ 14. zachary ,
    The guy’s telling the truth – we don’t know why it’s happening. Even if AGW was involved our tools are too crude to see it. The best guess is sunspots based on past activity but there’s no way to know yet if they have anything to do with what’s happening right now.
    Sunspots aren’t the only option, and we don’t know what’s going on exactly. What’s pathetic about admitting we don’t have the data to draw any conclusions yet? Not all of climate science is some ideological battle.

  • scott

    I think we really still don’t know as much as we think we do – either if what we do is affecting climate or not or maybe a little. Too many “experts” still argue from all sides, from the tofu eating hippy to the gun carrying red neck who wants to drill in the most fragile habitats.

    Regardless, I am all for limiting the amount of junk we spew into the air, wacky weather aside, there are many other issues with pollution – asthma, lung diseases, acid rain, mercury, animal issues (possible affects on amphibians) and even just unsightly smog and soot build up in cities. Those factors alone should cause the public to care more.

    Even if we were ultra green and making little pollution, who knows..the planet could still throw out some crazy weather patterns.

    ALSO!!!!!…we have to ask…lets say we were entering another ice age, with ice sheets advancing into northern Canada and winters lasting longer and longer affecting growing seasons…would we then all – even the greenest amoung us – be trying to do whatever we could to warm it up and stop it? Could or would we just let it keep going and all move to the equator? All 7 billion of us?

  • tusk

    Every old timer that gets on about the weather says they’ve never seen the conditions that’s been going on over the past year. I’m in north florida and the heat was even more over the top last summer. What people have seemed to notice, or at least the ones that I’ve talked to about it is that the sun feels hotter bearing down you during the day and is also a lot brighter for this time of year, more like the middle of spring, you can feel it on you. It was so bad back in october I was standing outside with a friend and we both ended up going inside because it was burning us on top of being so bright, and he’s from Arizona. People are noticing, it’s been near 80 degrees here and has been like that for weeks.

  • Jim H.

    First, global warming does not preclude localized areas of cooler than normal weather.
    Second, global warming does not require a straight line increase in temperatures. We can still have an occasional cooler than average year.
    Third, the trend is clear that we have had much warmer weather overall in the last thirty years.
    Fourth, although scientists are rightly cautious about stating that a particular weather event is caused or more likely accentuated by global warming, it is wrong to infer that the event is NOT caused by global warming. The fact is that our models are not refined enough to support either case. The trends, on the other hand, clearly show that warming is occurring.
    As for the ice age avoidance argument, what I have seen suggests that the onset of the next ice age is one or two thousand years away. Continuing our current fossil fuel usage means that we will have to survive a prolonged high temperature regime for much of the intervening period to get the benefit of ice age mitigation, not to mention that we would likely be out of fossil fuel to sustain the effect when it is most needed.

  • Ron

    We are going into a period of chaotic weather changes related to the currents. This has happened in the past many times over. Call it whatever you want to; it is going to happen anyway. It is the rythm of the planet, and written in history. The only thing different now, is we have the tools to see it coming this time. Last time – remember what happened? Egypt starved to death. History channel. The clues of the devastation are everywhere – worldwide. We are only now pulling all the clues together to a common time period, and relating it to a weather change event. Dark ages, here we come…

  • http://www.ecosophist.tumblr.com Justin

    @20 – RON

    Bring it on, I can’t wait for the new Dark Ages, it’s about time our avarice, greed, pretension and hyperbole were finally addressed by Momma Earth.


  • Geack

    @ 21. Justin –
    Avarice and greed are the same thing, and “hyperbole” is a figure of speech. People were just as greedy and awful in the European Dark Ages as they are now (it wasn’t the Dark Ages everywhere), but they were less healthy and more violent on top of it. You think our air is bad? Try living in a closed hut breathing wood smoke six months a year. You think our daily lives are bad? Try being beholden to a feudal lord.

    VHEMT has a certain fatalistic nobility about it, but it’s mainly a sad act of surrender. People who think the world sucks now seem to have this blanket inability to realize that the world sucked in much worse ways in the past.

  • Marie

    Um…. and then there’s Alaska, buried under a full season’s worth of snow in just one month.

  • Leah

    Well said, Geack

  • Terry

    Well, here in Zhuzhou, China (PRC) it is colder than Hell!

  • Carrie

    You do know that the Dark Ages were called the Dark Ages due to lack of written material and was not called the Dark Ages due to it being dark outside?

    They are called the dark ages as education wise, not many knew how to write. What little reading material we have leaves us in ‘the dark.’ Granted there was an anomoly in the weather during this time, but has nothing to do with the title of the period.

  • Mitch

    Here in St Catharines Ontario which borders Niagara Falls. Canada. I never seen a winter like this is my life, There is no winter here. and the long range forecast till the middle of Feburary shows there is no cold weather or snow coming. Spring is only 40 some more days away. It wasnt cold at all this year and no snow a few cm one day lol.We are not getting winter this year here anyway. I never seen anything like it in 60 years. Something is wrong. and those dumb asses that say la nina and whoever are smoking crack.

  • Bryant Schmude

    This warm winter is not as it should be…It has been too warm…I haven’t really used my woodstove much–actually sleeping here in SW Pennsylvania w/windows open & enjoying the cool night. I hate it like this…I eagerly awaited fall & winter and am not a happy person. I hate it when it’s hot & sticky. Most prople like it….But it is wonderful to cool down, rest & enjoy it. I pray for cold cool nights & snow…Freezing Rain I hate…but thick snow–Love it!!! I pray for this poor planet & all of us.

  • beth

    Here in Florida it’s been a very hot winter. I can’t stand the constant usual ‘hot’ all the time so I look forward to winter as it’s the only time to get any relief from the oppressive constant hot weather that we always get… now it seems we will get no winter this year…I’VE BEEN ROBBED-NO FAIR!!!

  • my_nanc

    You all should google HAARP pretty intresting reading and goes along with the weird weather? High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska

  • Keith

    Marie, I would guess that the heavy snows in Alaska may be caused by warm moist air coming north and meeting with the cold arctic air dumping lots of snow.

  • Merzing

    Also in St. Catharines … I’ve been here since the summer of 1946 and this winter is new to me. My daffodils and other bulbs are up and my neighbour used his snowblower once just to prove he has one. The little bit of snow we had melted the next day. I’m concerned for those parts of North America that rely on snow melt for water. I lean towards believing it is just part of the long-range cycling of climate.

  • Jeremy

    This weather worries me and I believe it to be no good for the summer months. We might possibly have a cold summer or an early winter this year. This isnt gonna be good for the people in agriculture business.

  • Doug

    Approaching mid February at a rapid rate. Best winter EVER!. I only like my winters in two ways. Either nice and toasty like it is now(for Iowa), or buried in ten feet of snow.

    I don’t want the half-bummed winter with a few inches of snow that sticks around for four months. I want a full tilt boogie winter where the flakes don’t stop piling up, or something nice and warm like it is now.

    I love that I can go outside with only a t-shirt(and no pants)!

  • rachaelmccarthy

    here in boston and all of new england its been very mild. like 40-50 all winter and a few inches of snow that almost melted instantly after. It has felt so strange because ive grown up here and never seen this kind of winter! and we had a snowstorm near halloween which was sooo weird! and also this paast summer some pretty crazy weather too…something is up but of course they wont tell us!

  • Kailey

    I live down in Mississippi, and the temperatures this winter have hovered anywhere from 65-80.

  • Lauren

    I live in Northeast Ohio, and our winters are usually quite cold and snowy, especially if you live in the snow belt. This winter has been so warm, it doesn’t even make sense. We’ve had a total of maybe 5 or 6 major snowfalls (by major, I mean 1-3 inches, stayed on ground for a few hours) The temperatures have been jumping all over the place, 32 one day, 65 the next. It’s throwing everyone here for a loop, that’s for sure.

    I can’t say I hate mild winters, but looking at the forecast today and seeing a high of 79 later this week really alarms me. We are normally still buried in snow this time of year, and Ohio is known to have snow storms almost til May some years. But almost 80 degrees in mid March? This is practically unheard of, and makes me nervous for summer.

  • Jessi

    From the comments i’ve read, this isn’t just a USA “problem” but a world wide thing. I say we all help little old Mother Nature figure things out by putting more input to recycle and saving water/energy. I know it might not make the biggest different but it never hurts to try! :)

  • Tam

    In St.Catharines as well…looking outside my window at a swarm of bugs. My crocuses have bloomed and are now almost finished, a ton of bee’s laden with pollen are buzzing happily around them. Yesterday I was being attacked by mosquito’s in the garden. It’s 15 degrees here. The trees are budding, the birds are chirping and it feels like the end of May……but it’s March.

  • Keely

    I live in Duluth mn where it’s always a cold long winter. It has snowed twice this winter and we’ve been enjoying 75 degrees! Insane!

  • Hahn Volotok

    This has been the strangest winter in the northeast I have ever seen in my life. We got no cold weather and not one single snow alert the entire winter. We got at most one or two days where the temperature stayed below freezing all day. Otherwise it was up in the 40,s, 50’s and even 60’s every single day. The one snow we got this winter was about 3 or 4 inches and it melted in a day. Our biggest “snowstorm” was way back in October. when it normaly doesn’t snow around here. And the heat continues. It is more like June than March.

    Most people living round here find this unusual weather “delightful”. I find it bizarre.

  • Kay

    I am in Michigan and our “winter” has mirrored Ohio, no snow and what snow we did have melted in hours. But we have had some rain and continually go through flash flood warnings. Where is the water coming from with no snow or significant rain? I have watched our pond flood out several times this winter with minimal rainfall. I too have never seen a winter like this and have lived in Michigan all my life. I was digging and cleaning out flower beds yesterday. My Magnolias and weeping cherries are getting ready to bloom and this is March 19th. We had a rare tornado in Michigan (too close) in this area last week that actually touched down. Extremely weird, but definitely not affecting just one area.

  • keiz

    Well, right now its 74 (instead of average of 47) in Massachusetts. I’m glad to see from the posts here that other people are as worried as I am about the weather trend. What I find hard to believe is that you don’t hear anything about the “why” on news/weather broadcasts, well – the one’s I watch anyway. Make’s you wonder if there is something happening or going to happen that we are not told about. Maybe I’ve been watching too many movies (ex. 2012, the day after tomorrow etc)

  • Miska

    Same here in Ohio everyone, as another Ohioan mentioned; crazy weather.

    Right now as I type this, it is 9:54 PM EDT and the current temperature is 71 degrees!

    I’ve lived in Ohio all my life and have NEVER, EVER seen weather like this in winter.

  • hilineload

    Sunspots are a recurring phenomena. There have been recorded solar mass ejections of much greater magnitude than the ones presently witnessed. While the “possible” influences of solar activity may help to explain some abnormal weather events, they fall short of explaining the severity of the weather we now see. I can not help but think there are other factors at work here.

  • UK Mark

    UK Winter has been non existent. The mildest I can ever recall. Very dry as well. We had a 30C (90F) in October…and in March we are in the garden sunbathing! March should be about 50F not 70f+ I’ve never seen anything like it.. Yet every says “it’s beautiful..” no-one says “Gee, this isn’t right.” People actually seems to love G.W.

    So is it PC to ignore G.W now? It’s freaking obvious isn’t it? Plain as my hand in front of my face.. yet we can’t say it is now? Weather cycles shouldn’t change this dramitcally this fast. Yet, let’s make Hethrow airport bigger and concentrate on the Olympics. G.W. can be put aside for our kids to deal with.


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