Scientists Link Arctic Heat and Northeast Blizzards

By Eric Betz | March 13, 2018 3:38 pm
snow falls in times sqaure

(Credit: Shutterstock)

In late February, an invasion of warm, southern air sent temperatures surging above freezing across the Arctic and toward the North Pole. In the two weeks since then, three nor’easters have smacked New England and the surrounding areas.

As the Arctic warms, this trend has become common in recent winters, and it’s drawn new attention to links between the polar vortex — a constant mass of cold, dense air rotating over the north pole — and weather patterns farther south.

When the polar vortex weakens like it has several times this winter, it can cause the jet stream to buckle and smash cold Arctic air into warm and wet air to the south. The result: severe winter storms.

“This year is a great example — a textbook case,” says Judah Cohen, a climatologist with the private prediction center called Atmospheric and Environmental Research. He says that Arctic heat “set up this parade of nor’easters the past two weeks.”

His new study on this phenomenon appears Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications — the same day yet another powerful nor’easter is crippling the East Coast. The team’s research suggests a firm link between Arctic warming and extreme winter weather.

“Basically, this confirms the story I’ve been telling for a couple of years now,” co-author Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University said in a news release. “Warm temperatures in the Arctic cause the jet stream to take these wild swings, and when it swings farther south, that causes cold air to reach farther south. These swings tend to hang around for awhile, so the weather we have in the eastern United States, whether it’s cold or warm, tends to stay with us longer.”

That might seem obvious to anyone living in the Northeast. But while the anecdotes are abundant, tying climate change to powerful winter storms has proven controversial even among scientists. Traditionally, researchers have focused on the ways Earth’s tropics influence mid-latitude weather.

And the trend is also surprising because early predictions for climate change suggested that winter would warm more than any other season, Cohen says. And while winters gotten much warmer there’s also been this unexpected rise in severe winter storms.

Opening the Fridge Door

This latest research emerged from Cohen’s efforts to forecast weather weeks or even months in advance— most meteorologists look just hours or days into the future. But as a climatologist at AER, he tries to provide clients — everyone from NASA to the insurance industry — with a long-term view.

And in recent years, he’d started noticing a pattern. When heat maps of the Arctic pulsed red — a sign winter temperatures were far above normal — the Northeastern U.S. would soon get smacked with a winter storm. The impact is enough to change weather patterns in Europe and Asia as well.

“It was like the number one signal you could see with a long lead time for getting a snow storm or a cold weather outbreak,” he says.


Yet no one had done an exhaustive study of the trend’s strength or how long it’s existed. So Cohen’s team pulled temperature and weather data from 12 American cities going back to the 1950s. They saw that when the Arctic heats up, strong winter storms are two to four times more likely in the eastern United States. Meanwhile, in the western U.S., there’s actually fewer severe storms when the Arctic is warm, and there’s also more storms when the Arctic is cold.

You can think of the polar vortex like the kitchen fridge — all the cold air is trapped inside. But if you leave the door open, that air escapes.

“When the polar vortex is strong, it acts like a dam and it confines all the cold weather in the Arctic,” Cohen says. “When that breaks down, it’s like a dam bursting, and cold air rushes to the lower latitudes.”

Links to Losing Sea Ice

This latest research merely looks at observational data — it doesn’t get into the reasons why. But Cohen sees a clear connection to rapidly shrinking sea ice, which has repeatedly hit record lows in recent years.

He says this link exists naturally, but the polar vortex is breaking down more often because the polar ice cap is shrinking. The effect is likely extra strong because the polar vortex is typically centered on the Barents Sea, where sea ice has been hit especially hard by climate change.

“I think that all these severe weather events (this year) are tied to the warming of the Arctic and losing arctic sea ice,” Cohen says.

That means the Northeast could see even more winter storms as sea ice continues to disappear. But the team admits it’s still too early to guess at what might happen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • Tom Yulsman

    Thank you for this story Eric. Well done!

  • Uncle Al

    Scientists link” 36 inches of Global Warming blanketing Boston to politicized temperature data-gap fills.

    … ocean surrounded by land
    … land surrounded by ocean, re Jupiter’s polar vortices.

    • OWilson

      In a chaotic system, every local state is “linked” to the whole.

      That is settled science.

      But a butterfly wing flapping in Africa does NOT cause hurricanes in the Atlantic.

      Neither does peeing in the sea cause the sinking of Tuvalu! :)

      • Bruno Hootspounder

        Why not? The simple striking of a match can cause devastating explosion if enough stored potential energy was being abruptly released.

  • John Thompson

    Except that there have been powerful Nor’easters reported since European people came to the US.
    That included the time prior to industrialization.
    On a related note – if you look at the history of animal species, nearly every one goes back prior to both far colder and warmer times.
    On NPR this morning a researcher was talking about “localized extinction” of a type of penguin. The host had to stop the researcher and mention that another colony in a different location has grown to 1.5 million of those penguins.
    About 3 years ago they published the meta study that showed that 98% of life was in different locations than today just 12,000 years ago. That was during the end period of the last ice age – a truly extreme climate event that makes even the most aggressive fear mongering about worst case scenarios of global warming seem trivial in comparison.
    Bet you didn’t hear about that massive meta study of life on Earth over the last 12,000 years.
    Why not?
    Because the MSM didn’t like that almost all forms of life survived a truly extreme climate event well beyond the seriousness of any predictions of climate change today. They hated the implication that life moves around and survives changes in climate.
    Absolutely destroys their doomsday narrative….but the change from ice age to the climate we are more familiar with was a greater change in climate and nearly all forms of life survived.

    • StanChaz

      Yes, Nor’easters have plagued us like forever.

      BUT most of the biggest & most intense NYC snowstorms have increasingly occurred in recent years, most especially within the last dozen years or so. This for NYC records going back at least to 1869.
      Check the Central Park weather website (i.e. biggest snows greater than one foot).

      Since you so casually dismiss extinctions caused by climate change, I’m sure that you’ll also blindedly ignore deniers such as yourself going extinct —when they’re swamped by rising waters as they stubbornly continue to collectively stick their heads in the sand :)

      • John Thompson

        The UN predicts the human population doubles before the end of the century, even with their worst case scenario climate predictions.
        “Doubling population” is not exactly the same as “extinction”.
        So you are simply wrong on that.
        As to “record” snowfalls, all records of such limited time-frame should be broken fairly regularly.
        Central park only dates back to about 1860.
        So any “record” is only the extreme reading in the last 158 years.
        You would expect a roughly 1 in 158 chance to break a record on any given day.
        With 365 days each year, records should be falling or else something is wrong.


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