Remember the North Pole winter thaw? A new study finds a rising trend in Arctic warming spikes in winter

By Tom Yulsman | July 11, 2017 4:02 pm
Blah blah. (Source: Norwegian Polar Institute)

During the N-ICE2015 expedition, scientists froze their boat, the Lance, into the Arctic sea ice to gather data from January to June of 2015. (Source: Norwegian Polar Institute)

During each of the past three years, something quite bizarre has happened in the central Arctic.

No, global warming did not cause some Thing to rise up out of the ice and go on a rampage. It was temperatures that rose up. And not just by a little.

This occurred during extreme warming events near the North Pole that sent temperatures spiking close to, or above, the freezing mark for one to three days. Compare that to average winter temperatures in winter: typically lower than minus 30 degrees Celsius, or -22 F.

Arctic warm spells in winter are by no means unheard of. But were the extreme conditions seen during the last three years a sign that warm episodes are becoming more common than in the past? And has the duration of warm episodes in winter been increasing?

A new study published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters finds that the answer to both questions is yes.

Since 1980, an additional six warming events — defined as temperatures rising above -10 degrees C, or 14 F — are occurring each winter in the North Pole region, according to the study by a team of Norwegian, American and German scientists. In addition, the average length of each event has grown from fewer than two days to nearly two and a half days.

(a) the number of distinct winter warming events each season, (b) the average duration of winter warming events each winter, and (c) the maximum duration of any winter warming event during a given winter, for the North Pole (red) and Pacific Central Arctic (blue) regions. (Source: Robert Graham / American Geophysical Union)

(a) the number of distinct winter warming events each season, (b) the average duration of winter warming events each winter, and (c) the maximum duration of any winter warming event during a given winter, for the North Pole (red) and Pacific Central Arctic (blue) regions. (Source: Robert Graham / American Geophysical Union)

To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers analyzed weather data dating back to the late 1800s from a variety of sources. This included the historic Fram expedition of 1893 to 1896, during which famed Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his crew froze themselves into the Arctic sea ice aboard their wooden ship the Fram. While they drifted with the ice, the crew collected some of the first weather observations in the high Arctic.

The scientists also crunched data collected by manned Soviet North Pole drifting ice stations from 1937 to 1991, as well as from drifting ocean buoys. And they used a reanalysis of global atmospheric data called ERA-Interim.

A member of the Norwegian N-ICE2015 expedition adjusts an instrument out on an Arctic Ocean ice floe that measures wind and temperature. (Source: Mats Granskog/Stephen Hudson, Norwegian Polar Institute)

Out on an Arctic Ocean ice floe, a researcher from the Norwegian N-ICE2015 expedition adjusts an instrument that measures wind and temperature. (Source: Mats Granskog/Stephen Hudson, Norwegian Polar Institute)

They discovered that winter warming episodes have occurred across most of the Arctic Basin for more than a century. The crew of the Fram expedition, for example, recorded a temperature of −3.7°C (25 F) just 400 miles from the North Pole in March 1896.

In fact, researchers found that temperatures spiking to near the melting mark in the central Arctic during the last three winter seasons were “not unprecedented.”

But the warming events of the past were not as long-lasting or frequent as those being observed now. Moreover, maximum winter air temperatures at the North Pole increased between 1980 to 2016 at a rate of about 0.70°C per decade.

The research team concluded:

These trends are due to an increased number of distinct winter warming events and an increase in the average length of a single event. These patterns are consistent with recent studies that have indicated part of the rapid rise in Arctic winter temperatures may be linked to the increased occurrence of winter storm events or moisture intrusions, which transport warm and moist air into the Arctic from the midlatitudes

In fact, in the most recent years of the study, strong winds swirling around frequent major storms swept huge amounts of warmth and moisture from the Atlantic Ocean into the central Arctic.

“The warming events and storms are in effect one and the same,” said Robert Graham, lead study author and a climate scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, Norway, as quoted in a NASA press release. “The more storms we have, the more warming events, the more days with temperatures less than minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) rather than below minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit), and the warmer the mean winter temperature is.”

Ice breakup | Sea ice in the Arctic is not as thick as you might think. Its average thickness is only between 1 and 3 meters. During the #NICE2015Arctic expedition last year, scientists established research camps on sea ice drifting through the Arctic. In June, the camp was on a piece of ice a few kilometers in diameter that was slowly melting as it drifted south towards the open ocean. This ice was on average a meter thick when swell (wind waves generated in the open ocean) hit the camp around 7am on the 19th of June. By 11 am, when this photo was taken the large piece of ice had broken up into small 10-50 meter pieces. A team was sent out on the ice to rescue the scientific gear and pack up the camp. Sea ice breakup is a normal process in the marginal ice zone. It is driven by a combination of wind, waves and heat from the sun and ocean. | Photo: Mar Fernandez Mendez, Norwegian Polar Institute | #Science #Research #Expedition #Arctic #Arktis #NorskPolarinstitutt #Tromsø #NorthPole #SciComm #Outreach #ForskKomm #Svalbard #SeaIce #IceBreakUp #FieldPhotoFriday #MarginalIceZone

A post shared by Oceanography and Sea Ice (@oceanseaicenpi) on

How much is human-caused climate change to blame? That’s a subject for further study. But already there is evidence that such storms are becoming more frequent and having a larger impact.

Shrinking sea ice cover due to climate change seems to be playing a role. As the edge of Arctic sea ice near Norway has retreated, that has allowed warm surface waters to move closer and closer to the North Pole in winter. That, in turn, can help rev up storms moving from the Atlantic into the Arctic.

  • JWrenn

    Well that sucks

  • OWilson

    In other news, In July, Greenland set a record for the coldest July temperature ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere.

    Best to look at the Global picture. Nature has a way of keeping things in balance overall.

    Globally, according to NOAA’s satellite record, we have a slight warming anomaly of 0.21 degrees over the last 38 years.

    • Mike Richardson

      If you think that one anomalous temperature reading in Greenland this month shows the global climate is “in balance overall,” your idea of good balance must include a constant state of vertigo. Here’s a better sense of global temperatures overall from May 2017, the most recent global temperature report from NOAA:

      — 3rd warmest land and water temperatures on record.

      You’re welcome. :)

      Oh, and has Greenland slowed it’s rapid meltdown as a result of the “coldest July temperature ever recorded”?

      Btw, I’m still waiting for your scientific discussion of the recent findings that satellite data didn’t take into account the satellites ‘ drift and measurements taken at different times of the day — which means your 0.21 degree figure is wrong.

      • OWilson

        Better take that up with NOAA

        It’s their data not mine!

        • Mike Richardson

          I didn’t ask their opinion, I asked for yours. Don’t you think satellite readings taken at different times of the day over a period of several years might not be as accurate as readings taken consistently at the same time of day, or NOAA’s readings taken at surface stations (which you seem more reluctant to cite)? Seems like an appeal to authority without regard to the accuracy of specific data would be a pretty weak argument. Care to provide your own view of this?

          • OWilson

            You again?

            My needy troll?

            Here’s my opinion I have given you multiple times over the last year, but for the reading chellenged here it is again!

            NOAA publishes the temperature of the lower troposphere (that’s where you live) as derived from their satellite data.

            This data is published monthly.

            It shows an warming anomaly, as of July, 2017 of 0.21 degrees, over the entire 38 year record.

            This has nothing to do with me, so if you wish to dispute the figure, go take it up with them!


            Now go find someone else who will actually respond to your nonsense!

            I’m the only one, and I can only do so much for you, Mikey. I try my best :)

            You need more, shall we say, “professional” help!

            You are a tiresome bore, who no one else will converse with, and I’m under no obligation to feed trolls!

            So I’m done with you here!

          • Mike Richardson

            If you think asking a simple science question (which you could easily answer if you weren’t so ideologically rigid) makes a person a troll, your definition of troll needs correcting as much as the figures you keep repeating. You continue to evade any straightforward answer that challenges your “0.21 degrees” boilerplate response, and continue to demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in any actual debate or discussion regarding the methodology used in arriving at the 0.21 degree figure. If you’re done even pretending to answer me, that’s quite all right. But know that any time you choose to bring up that little factoid in any of the blog posts around here, I will challenge it, point out that is in dispute, and explain why. If you choose not to respond, respond with insults and evasions (while ironically accusing me of trolling) or actually discuss the point like a mature rational adult will be up to you. Your call, Wilson. :)

          • OWilson

            I have many interesting exchanges of information with “rational mature adults” on the Discover blogs.

            That lets you out, Mikey! :)

            While on one level, I am flattered to have a dedicated international stalker, a dubious achievement usually reserved for celebrity, it is a little weird.

            I’m glad I don’t have young children!

          • Mike Richardson

            Certainly takes little to flatter narcissists, I see. And I don’t encounter you anywhere but in the Discover blogs, since I’m interested in science. You won’t find me on any other Discus forums you might frequent. I certainly don’t constantly check your profile to see how many likes you have, or bother trying to pinpoint your geographic location — you know, really creepy stalker things. You might not want to accuse others of behavior you yourself engage in at equal or greater levels, ya know? No, my interest isn’t in you, particularly, but in making sure one of my favorite sources of science news doesn’t get swamped by deliberate misinformation.

            Back on that topic, you could always use ground based readings acquired by NOAA, as they appear more consistent — they’re also not as low as your problematic satellite readings, so I suspect you won’t. As for Greenland, which you brought up in your initial post — still melting down, and apparently at an accelerating rate. So I can see why you would prefer diversions to an actual discussion of facts, since your grasp of facts is about equivalent to your grasp of irony. 😉

          • OWilson

            You are deluding yourself with imagined strawmen again! I have never “bothered” to “pinpoint” your location.

            Do you think you are THAT important to me, snowflake? lol

            You yourself were blaming Global Warming for getting flooded out in Livingstone Parish. You then re-built your house in the same location which I warned you against.

            You posted tall that info here in the blogs. along with being a government worker and a Bernie supporter.

            You frequently refer to my “fans” and “readers” of my posts. YOU bring that up, not me, except in answer to your deluded ramblings.

            Seems you like to make up your own version of reality, imagined strawmen, while forgetting what you have actually put on record here.

            You are fooling nobody, Mikey! :)

            Only yourself! :)

            Speaking of deluded “self importance, and narcissism” by the way, Discover can manage quite well without your lame one man crusade to moderate the content! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Quite the little tirade there. LOL! If you have such a problem with your hypocrisy being pointed out, perhaps you should engage in it less. And of course, nothing at all on topic. Still don’t have any actual facts to refute what I’ve stated about the satellite data you keep regurgitating, or the state of Greenland’s icecap, eh? Just more insults and diversions, all while sanctimoniously (and quite hypocritically) accusing others of trolling. It would be foolish of me to expect any better of you at this point, I suppose. See you later, Wilson. 😉

          • OWilson

            You can keep shouting and covering your ears :)


          • Freddy Boom-Boom

            Discuss the content in this 13 minute video please:

      • Freddy Boom-Boom

        I think you meant to say “…Greenland’s record Ice GAIN in 2016-2017…”



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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