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Warm Arctic, Cold Continents

January 7, 2014

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Extremely  cold winds have swept down through the Northern Hemisphere recently, reaching  as far south as the state of Florida and causing record low temperatures in  January. The unusually cold winter of 2009–2010 – which saw massive snowstorms  dubbed “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon” — and the frigid start to 2011 in the  eastern United States and Europe have scientists talking about what might be  influencing the weather.

Dr. James  Overland, a scientist at NOAA’s Pacific  Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle, has been studying the changing  conditions in the Arctic for 30 years. He explains why the deterioration of the Polar Vortex could be leading to some of these  extreme winter weather events.

“When the Polar  Vortex — a ring of winds circling the Arctic — breaks down, this allows cold  air to spill south, affecting the eastern United States and other regions,” says  Dr. Overland. “This can result in a warmer-than-average Arctic region and  colder temperatures that may include severe winter weather events on the North  American and European continents.”


According to  the 2010 Arctic  Report Card, there is reduced sea summer sea ice cover, record snow cover  decreases, and record temperatures. Could these changes be linked to the  weakened Polar Vortex and extreme winter weather events?

Many factors, including natural climate variability, can produce  extreme weather events. But, there also is a potential impact from Arctic  regions, where solar heat absorbed by recently ice-free regions of the ocean warms  the atmosphere during autumn, impacting the winds. More research is needed to  study the causes and extent of the recently observed Warm Arctic-Cold Continent  pattern.

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