How The Arctic Death Spiral Fuels A ‘Wicked Backlash On Our Weather’

Videographer Peter Sinclair has another excellent video for The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media featuring leading Arctic experts:

One of the featured scientists is Dr. Jennifer Francisof Rutgers’ Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. We’ve featured discussion of Francis’s important work here.

Francis was lead author of a 2012 Geophysical Research Letters study, “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” which found that the loss of Arctic ice favors “extreme weather events that result from prolonged conditions, such as drought, flooding, cold spells, and heat waves.” You can find some good explanations of her findings here.

The Washington Post‘s Capital Weather Gang featured a guest post by Francis last Friday, “Shrinking Arctic ice and the wicked backlash on our weather.” Here are some key excerpts:

Heat waves. Drought. Flooding. Cold spells. Wildfires. The climate system is changing before our very eyes, and there is no more glaring proof than the record-shattering loss of Arctic sea ice this summer.

Via NASA: “The area covered by older and thicker sea ice in the Arctic diminished by almost 50 percent between 1980 and 2012.”

And, since overall the ice thinned out, the volume dropped by 75% during that time, making a reversal of this trend anytime soon exceedingly improbable. Francis notes:

Fossil fuels – such as oil, coal, and natural gas – are the main source of these added greenhouse gases, as they’re burned to provide the energy that heats our homes, lights our streets, and runs our vehicles. It now appears, however, that a gradual warming may not be the primary concern, as the gases may also fuel extreme weather around the world.

How does warming fuel extreme weather? Francis explains:

Since the fossil-fuel revolution after World War II, Arctic temperatures have increased at twice the global rate, illustrating a phenomenon called Arctic amplification. Thus, sea ice has melted at an unprecedented rate and is now caught in a vicious cycle known as the ice-albedo feedback: as sea ice retreats, sunshine that would have been reflected into space by the bright white ice is instead absorbed by the ocean, causing waters to warm and melt even more ice.

As temperatures over the Arctic Ocean fall with the approach of winter, the extra energy that was absorbed during summer must be released back into the atmosphere before the water can cool to freezing temperatures. Essentially, this loads the atmosphere with a new source of energy—one that affects weather patterns, both locally and on a larger scale. In spring, a similar phenomenon also occurs, but it involves snow cover on northern land areas. Snow has been melting progressively earlier each year; this past June and July it disappeared earlier than ever before. The underlying soil is then exposed to strong spring sun, which allows it to dry and warm earlier – contributing to Arctic amplification in summer months.

The difference in temperature between the Arctic and areas to the south is what drives the jet stream, a fast-moving river of air that encircles the northern hemisphere. As the Arctic warms faster, this temperature difference weakens, as does the west-to-east wind of the jet stream. Just as a river of water tends to meander when it reaches the gentle slopes of coastal plains, a weaker jet stream tends to have steeper north-south waves. Arctic amplification also stretches the northern tips of the waves farther northward, which favors further meandering. Meteorologists know that steeper waves are slower to shift westward.

The weather we experience at mid-latitudes is largely dictated by these waves in the jet stream. The slower the waves move, the longer the weather associated with them will persist. Essentially, “hot,” “dry,” “cold,” and “rainy” are all terms to describe very normal weather conditions. It’s only when those conditions persist in one area for too long that they are dubbed with the names of their extreme alter egos: heat waves, drought, cold spells, and floods. And these kinds of extreme events are precisely what we’ve seen more of in recent years.

Global warming now has a face and a fingerprint that directly touch each of our lives. Rather than just a gradual increase in temperature, we can recognize its influence in a shift toward more extreme weather events. A warmer atmosphere also means a moister atmosphere, so any given storm will have more moisture and energy to work with, increasing the chances of flooding or heavy snows. Arctic amplification adds another mechanism to the mix, making extreme weather more likely. The loss of ice and snow in the far north may load the dice for “stuck” weather patterns, compounding potential risks for our economy, our health, and our security.

If you really want to dive into Francis’s important work, she has a long video discussion here.

I believe the coming years will lead to more evidence and analysis backing Franicis’s work — and that Dr. Jeff Masters, Weather Underground director of meteorology and former hurricane hunter, was correct when he noted earlier this year:

The climate has shifted to a new state capable of delivering rare & unprecedented weather events.”

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17 Responses to How The Arctic Death Spiral Fuels A ‘Wicked Backlash On Our Weather’

  1. Russian Dude says:

    Looks like CNN managed to make a climate change headline. Too bad it was nowhere near the front page, but embedded in a link after you clicked on a 3rd rate front page story.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    “Rare and unprecedented” -yep and we are already into the bushfire season with unprecedented fuel loads from all the rain and floods, ME

  3. Glenn M says:

    ME, if I understand your post, it seems to be focused on a variation instead of the overall picture. May I suggest a 1 min animation showing the difference between a trend and a variation?

  4. Jeff Poole says:

    And those of us in Queensland – with a decades high fuel load – have a demoralised Rural Fire Service half of whom will be sacked after summer by our climate change denying government.

    Australia, land of Fire, Flooding rains and F*cked politicians.

  5. Dan B says:

    Kudos to Dr. Francis for going to video to explain what she knows. I want her to back it up to the next level.

    Back it up?

    I met with a half dozen black contractors on Friday. They’re interested in “green” building and remodeling. I did a short survey. “Green” building and remodeling came out on top. Stopping Global Warming got ZERO votes. ZERO.

    Here’s the deal. Changing people’s mindset is key. Minds change only when every single shred of their beliefs and every piece of evidence they hold dear are repeatedly proved to ensure their death.

    Anything less does nothing.

    Do you believe you or your children will survive?

    Say what you believe.

  6. Spike says:

    The jet stream is being mentioned in connection with the current storms and very wet weather in the UK.

    “Secondly this low pressure is lingering for longer than we would often see. The reason for this is down to the position of the jet stream, a narrow band of fast moving winds high up in the atmosphere which ‘steers’ weather systems.

    Normally the jet stream runs fairly directly from east to west and pushes weather systems through quite quickly. Similar to earlier this year, the steering flow of the jet stream is currently in a meandering mood – looking much like a river, curving north and south as it heads west across the Atlantic (we call this a meridional flow, with the more linear west to east flow being called a zonal flow).”

  7. Spike says:

    In fact in the UK it’s being called the most intense storm for 30 years in parts.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Fracked? The Newman regime is a real hoot, already, living testament to the fact that the Right have gone stark raving bonkers, and every new Rightist regime is more deracinated, deranged, duplicitous and vicious than those which came before. Just wait for Tony Abort.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Is anybody still willing to admit they voted for them? ME

  10. Lionel A says:

    At last we see David Shukman of the BBC unfettered by being ‘balanced’ with Benny Peiser here is a round up of Shukman contributions, with the clip in the video featured above under this heading ‘How melting Arctic ice speeds global warming

    I know how vulnerable to flooding the Severn near Tewkesbury is. I was brought up in Gloucester in the 1950s – early 1960s and Tewkesbury is almost a suburb. I recall flooding back then with roads flooded up to the railway that passed over on the level. But that is nothing to compare with what is happening over recent days and indeed years.

    The foam from the sea on the East coast of Scotland near Aberdeen is astonishing, Foam swept in as gales hit Scotland, bad smells now I suspect. This another area with which I had some familiarity having been based a little to the south in the 1960s.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    The multi-year loss of old ice through the Fram Strait should get LOTS more attention.
    Research papers in the past twenty years on thermohaline circulation show the importance of a seasonal flow of freshwater from melting ice in maintaining global ocean currents.

    The gradual exhaustion of multi-year ice has delayed a metastasis of consequences, of which disrupted ocean currents would be one of those to have a big effect on humans.

    It is boggling to imagine what disrupted currents could do, in conjunction with the effects on Jet Stream and mid-latitude weather as already described by Dr. Jennifer Francis.

  12. Adam Sacks says:

    Great little video. ME might be observing a variation, but it’s a variation consistent with, and dependent upon, the trend. The stronger the trend, the greater the likelihood that the variation indicates the trend. Like associating weather events with climate change: five years ago the scientific mantra was that no single weather event could be said to result from global warming, to today it’s weather events are consistently amplified by climate trends and even, occasionally, caused thereby.

    A disastrously strengthening trend makes for greater confidence about variations relating to the trend.

  13. Lionel A says:

    At Newburn, Newcastle, UK a block of flats becomes isolated as foundations are undermined, daylight can be seen beneath one corner of the block.

  14. The greatest challenge is to raise awareness of this slowly unfolding catastrophe among enough people that they clamor for our leadership to respond.

    At some point, and it could be within the next few years if the ice cap does indeed collapse, the “slowly unfolding” character could flip to “rapidly disrupting.” Some think we’ve already passed the tipping point, and the Arctic is going to be ice-free. We have to assume there is some hope that’s not true–that there’s some negative feedback that we have yet to account for that may kick in if we can keep additional CO2 from entering the atmosphere.

    But to do that requires extraordinary cooperation across all industrialized societies. That can only happen if there’s leadership, and that would best come from the U.S.

    We need a hyper-reactionary right-winger to see the light. I envision a scientist having a one-on-one with this person to explain the evidence. That’s one possible way to get the shift in mindset we need. Without that mindset shift, any at-scale solution will be met with fierce (and I think possibly violent) resistance.

    Who is the scientist best suited for this challenge? Who is the best hyper-reactionary to target?

  15. One possibility: the fundamentalist Christian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe sitting down with Senator James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on the Environment.

  16. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Glenn, we have trends running out of our ears here which have been becoming clearer for years, longer droughts, bushfires earlier and more intense, more yo-yo weather, heavier downpours, etc, ME

  17. Dick Smith says:

    Joan, thanks for another great comment.