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).
If you live in the Northeast, chances are you’ve had a disappointingly balmy December so far (the snow seems to have taken a wrong turn somewhere and wound up over Texas instead). But when the air gets that snap and you reach for the wool socks, Emily Eggleston at Scientific American has a few factoids that promise to fascinate. Here’s why wool keeps you warm:
Wool keeps out the cold because it is an excellent insulator. Crimped and crisscrossed woolen fibers create tons of little air pockets. The tiny air masses within my socks have difficulty moving in and out of the fabric. Without convective heat transfer and contact with air of other temperatures, the spaces between wool fibers maintains a steady temperature.