Warming Arctic Fuels Cold Surges and Snowy Winters, Yet Another Study Finds

A new study led by the Georgia Institute of Technology provides further evidence of a relationship between melting ice in the Arctic regions and widespread cold outbreaks in the Northern Hemisphere….

Since the level of Arctic sea ice set a new record low in 2007, significantly above-normal winter snow cover has been seen in large parts of the northern United States, northwestern and central Europe, and northern and central China. During the winters of 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, the Northern Hemisphere measured its second and third largest snow cover levels on record.

“Our study demonstrates that the decrease in Arctic sea ice area is linked to changes in the winter Northern Hemisphere atmospheric circulation,” said Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. “The circulation changes result in more frequent episodes of atmospheric blocking patterns, which lead to increased cold surges and snow over large parts of the northern continents.”

That’s from the news release of an NASA- and NSF-funded study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Impact of declining Arctic sea ice on winter snowfall.”

I think Curry’s use of the phrase “cold surges” is important. Although there have definitely been some major cold blasts, our winters aren’t actually getting colder — see the 10/11 Climate Progress post, “Last Two Winters’ Warm Extremes More Severe Than Their Cold Snaps, Study Finds.” And that’s without counting this winter.  Of course, winters are just going to keep getting warmer globally — so I think some of the reporting on this study has been a tad misleading.

The point is that it now appears over the next couple of decades, the gradual rate of warming will not be able to overcome the occasional incredible winter cold surges fueled by the loss of Arctic ic. This is particularly true if, as I and others have argued, we’re going to see continued rapid ice loss in the next decade (see “The New Arctic Abnormal: Record Low Sea Ice Volume, Area and Extent*” and “The death spiral continues“).

Arctic sea ice in September 2007 reached its lowest extent on record, approximately 40% lower than when satellite records began in 1979. Sea ice loss in 2011 was virtually tied with the ice loss in 2007, despite weather conditions that were not as unusual in the Arctic.

The new PNAS report is about the third study to come to the same conclusion:

The disinformers have repeatedly suggested that big snowstorms disprove (!) climate science. They can’t stand the fact that actual science says that the Snowpocalypses we’ve been seeing can be directly linked to global warming, which, of course, wasn’t news to anyone who actually reads the scientific literature or talks to real climatologists (see “An amazing, though clearly little-known, scientific fact: We get more snow storms in warm years!“).

This study is probably particularly annoying to the disinformers since it was co-authored by Curry, who has transformed herself from climate science advocate into a promoter of many long-debunked disinformers (see “The curious incident of Curry with the fringe“).

The lead author, Jiping Liu, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, explained that the study looked at more than just changes in atmospheric circulation. It also looked at changes in atmospheric water vapor content, which into scientists have long said would increase because of global warming and drive more extreme precipitation events, which  in fact is what has happened (see “Two seminal Nature papers join growing body of evidence that human emissions fuel extreme weather, flooding that harm humans and the environment“).

As ABC News reports, “more water is evaporating into the air as Arctic ice at the ocean’s surface melts away”:

“This greatly enhances the transfer of moisture from the ocean to the atmosphere,” Liu said. That humidity, he says, essentially acts as fuel to help supercharge “Snowmageddon”-type storms like the ones that paralyzed parts of the northeastern U.S. in 2010. A more recent, deadly deep freeze in Eastern Europe left 650 people dead.

“The record decline in Arctic sea ice is at least a critical contributor to recent snowy winters in northern continents,” Liu said.

Liu says the new research may also help connect the dots between human-caused global warming, vanishing ice and our changing weather.

As Climate Central notes, “The Arctic has been warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the globe, a trend studies show is largely due to manmade climate change. Fall sea ice cover declined by 27 percent between 1979-2010, and the five lowest sea ice extent years have all occurred during the past five years.”

They spoke to another leading expert on the subject:

Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University who was not involved in this study, said the findings largely fit with other investigations into the ways in which Arctic climate change is reshaping weather patterns.

“… Enhanced Arctic warming, caused by climate change, is increasing the tendency for weather patterns of all sorts to become more “stuck,” she said via email. “The cold [and] snowy winters of late have received a lot of attention, but it should be noted that at the same time other places had abnormally dry and warm conditions.”

Francis said a warming Arctic will increase the chances of extreme winters, both cold and warm. “Which areas will experience which conditions is a tough call.”

Here’s more background on the study from the release:

In this study, scientists from Georgia Tech, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Columbia University expanded on previous research by combining observational data and model simulations to explore the link between unusually large snowfall amounts in the Northern Hemisphere in recent winters and diminishing Arctic sea ice.

The researchers analyzed observational data collected between 1979 and 2010 and found that a decrease in autumn Arctic sea ice of 1 million square kilometers — the size of the surface area of Egypt — corresponded to significantly above-normal winter snow cover in large parts of the northern United States, northwestern and central Europe, and northern and central China.

The analysis revealed two major factors that could be contributing to the unusually large snowfall in recent winters — changes in atmospheric circulation and changes in atmospheric water vapor content — which are both linked to diminishing Arctic sea ice. Strong warming in the Arctic through the late summer and autumn appears to be enhancing the melting of sea ice.

“We think the recent snowy winters could be caused by the retreating Arctic ice altering atmospheric circulation patterns by weakening westerly winds, increasing the amplitude of the jet stream and increasing the amount of moisture in the atmosphere,” explained Jiping Liu, a senior research scientist in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. “These pattern changes enhance blocking patterns that favor more frequent movement of cold air masses to middle and lower latitudes, leading to increased heavy snowfall in Europe and the Northeast and Midwest regions of the United States.”

Diminishing Arctic sea ice can cause changes in atmospheric circulation that lead to a circulation pattern that is different than the “negative phase” of the Arctic Oscillation.

In addition to analyzing observational data, the researchers also assessed the impact of the diminishing Arctic sea ice on atmospheric circulation by comparing the results of model simulations run with different sea ice distribution. They ran one experiment that assumed seasonally varying Arctic sea ice and utilized sea ice concentration data collected between 1979 and 2010. Another simulation incorporated prescribed sea ice loss in autumn and winter based on satellite-derived Arctic sea ice concentrations.

The simulations showed that diminishing Arctic sea ice induced a significant surface warming in the Arctic Ocean and Greenland/northeastern Canada, and cooling over northern North America, Europe, Siberia and eastern Asia. The models also showed above-normal winter snowfall in large parts of the northern United States, central Europe, and northern and central China.

The bottom line is that for the foreseeable future, we can expect to see whipsawing winters and more Snowmaggedons, thanks in large part to human emissions of greenhouse gases.

23 Responses to Warming Arctic Fuels Cold Surges and Snowy Winters, Yet Another Study Finds

  1. prokaryotes says:

    I think we have been lucky so far!

    Seriously this is a emerging threat to northern hemisphere infrastructure during the winter month.

    With the polar oscillation in an imbalanced state, the cold are intrusion and snow lake effects and all this will just get more pronounced. All the ice mass which accumulates each season at the northern cap will be now distributed over lower latitudes.

    This is also further pushed by alteration of winds in general. Because the loose of the ozone layer creates these winds, because the entire atmospheric layer composition changed, and keeps on ding so.

    We screwed up big. and we can screw it more.

    Wind and Ozone Layer

    Tug of war on the jet stream
    Recent studies show that ozone depletion also causes a polewards expansion of the southern boundary of the so-called Hadley cell — a circulation loop that dominates the tropical atmosphere. In the Hadley cell, which is symmetric about the Equator, air rises near the Equator, flows towards the pole at a height of about 10 to 15 km, descends in the subtropics (at about 30° S and 30° N) and flows back towards the Equator near the surface. The descending branch contributes to the subtropical dry zones, so polewards expansion of the Hadley cell would be accompanied by a polewards expansion of these dry zones, with consequences for water resources and food production in these areas

    Somewhat relevant

  2. clays says:

    “Liu says the new research may also help connect the dots between human-caused global warming, vanishing ice and our changing weather.”

    I thought it was all solved and settled science. Stop producing oil or we all die. If there are still dots to be connected doesn’t that mean there is still some uncertainty about the likelihood we’re all going to die?

  3. Richard D says:

    the connection between ice and weather is being investigated here.

    The connection between GHGs and global temperature is settled science or as good as.

    Straight forward

  4. BillD says:

    Too bad that humans often interpret climate based on short term experience in their own region. Little doubt that this year’s warm winter in North America will lead to more “belief” in global warming while many Europeans will doubt warming based on their cold winter this year. It’s almost as bad as believing that the US President’s energy policy has a major effect on US gasoline prices.

  5. clays says:

    So we’re still not sure if GHG caused weather changes are going to kill us or not huh?

  6. Doug Bostrom says:

    Weather != climate. But you know that.

  7. Richard D says:

    clays your original comment was

    ” “Liu says the new research may also help connect the dots between human-caused global warming, vanishing ice and our changing weather.”

    I thought it was all solved and settled science. Stop producing oil or we all die. If there are still dots to be connected doesn’t that mean there is still some uncertainty about the likelihood we’re all going to die? ”

    This question was answered, by distinguishing between the specific effects of ice on weather from the general consideration of increased GHG, global temperature and weather.

    Now you’re asking different question. What is to be gained by chasing after different questions without any acknowledgement of those already answered ?

  8. Neven says:

    Thanks for this, Joe.

    This could be the first tangible example of climate change. I mean, climate change is already visibly happening in the Arctic regions, but this could make it visible to the entire western world.

    The melting season is about to start. The region that is linked to the ‘cold surges and snowy winters’ on the NH (the Barents and Kara seas) looks poised for an onslaught. If it comes about and the sea water gets even more time to heat up, we will soon find out whether the link is really there or not.

  9. Toby says:

    Love the irony of Judith Curry’s part in this. As someone pointed out at Skeptical Science, no matter what stupid statements she makes on her blog, Dr Curry has managed to keep her research rigorous, relevant and within the bounds of the consensus!

  10. Toby says:

    Oops! Above comment was meant for main thread! Change if possible.

  11. SecularAnimist says:

    clays wrote: “doesn’t that mean there is still some uncertainty about the likelihood we’re all going to die?”

    No, it is 100 percent certain that each and every one of us is going to die.

  12. clays says:

    “help connect the dots between human-caused global warming, vanishing ice and our changing weather”

    The theory goes:
    Human caused global warming makes the ice caps melt… melting ice caps effect the weather.

    But we’re not sure how and to what degree. Hence there are still dots to be connected. Hence uncertainty about all of us dying if we don’t leave 80% of our energy sources in the ground.

  13. clays says:

    Ha! Yeah, I guess your right on that one.

  14. Richard D says:

    It is still the case that two different issues are being questioned

    Global temperature causes changes in weather patterns by a number of processes where ice melt is only one of those processes.

    Trying to make general statements about GHG effect on weather and what will ‘kill us or not’ from a study on the detail of one process does not follow.

  15. John Tucker says:

    Things are getting strange. Not only was this recent la Nina unusually warm but now at least one region seems to be rapidly transitioning ( ) as of late.

    Also a index affiliated with it – the southern oscillation is going the opposite direction ( )- and it looks to have hit some of the highest levels ever recorded/reconstructed ( ).

    Dont know what it all means – just seems odd. probably we are about to find out.

  16. prokaryotes says:

    UHm, is there something wrong with my comment or why is it still not visible?

  17. David F. says:

    I’m a little skeptical of this study, especially seeing as Judith Curry was involved. The idea that it is getting colder in the winter seems like more confusionist tripe — designed to make people think it’s no longer warming, when in fact it is. The truth is winters have been warming rapidly — you can’t draw a conclusion based on two seasons (2009/2010 and 2010/2011), especially when this winter is running so dramatically counter to those winters.

    Much of the country warmed 1 to 2 degrees over the period 1981-2010 versus 1971-2000, with the Northern Plains warming up to 4 degrees. This winter has seen much of the country with temperatures some 3 to as much as 7 degrees above normal. And will likely be in the top 3 or 4 warmest of all winters since 1880.

    I may be wrong, but the last two winters, while relatively cool, were not really that much below the long-term average. And a one- or two-year blip of cooler weather is entirely consistent with global warming theory, without having to look to any alternative explanations. Remember all AGW does is load the dice — it doesn’t mean it will never get cold again.

  18. Joe Romm says:

    Read the other two studies.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Keeps her a saleable asset for the denialist industry. Plimer, in contrast, now only elicits impolite tittering.

  20. Colorado Bob says:

    JT –

    71F degrees at midnight with a 64F degree dew point in Little Rock.

  21. John Tucker says:

    You got us beat – 63 here in N central Fla. But our trees started coming out mid FEB – Now grass is out and dogwoods are in bloom!

  22. While Europe was extremely cold, Spitsbergen/Svalbard had new record highs: +7°C