This winter has been a fascinating one to say the least. Wild oscillations between very abnormally warm and very abnormally cold while other places are are just consistently very warm. Or perhaps just very dry. Much of this has been thanks to the current La Nina pattern in place over the Tropical Pacific. The atmospheric pattern leading to abnormally cooler waters over the eastern tropical region also lead to the promotion of strong high pressure systems over the Central North Pacific with unusually higher amplitude jet streams. This favors a polar jet aiming for the Pacific Northwest, northern tier and into the northeastern third of the country while the Southwest and Sunbelt see drier conditions.
Of note with this pattern regime has been the, at times, extreme nature of the jet stream amplitudes. They have driven very warm temperatures into the Arctic with record low sea ice across the Arctic Ocean, the warmest December on record across the state of Alaska, and record high temperatures in portions of the Southwest US in January with the aforementioned persistent drying and intensifying drought concerns.
Meanwhile, significant Arctic intrusions have been impacting the US, particularly in January and more appear likely in February as “teleconnections”…patterns in global circulation which give clues toward a general weather regime for a region of the world…show signs of further intense extreme jet stream amplitudes with very strong upper-level high pressure systems blocking storm tracks over the north Pacific and Bering Sea, which downstream will mean a cross polar flow in the upper atmosphere of very cold air upper troughs and surface Arctic fronts and high pressure systems over northern Plains/Midwest into the Northeast US. The Deep South should escape as warmer air from the subtropics attempts to advance north and may keep the Arctic air at bay. Europe looks to also have periods of similar cold (and interior Siberia of course! Check out the incredible cold they had last month).
Powerful Arctic Ocean Storm Sunday-Tuesday
While the mid-latitudes get hit with Arctic cold, the Arctic is being pounded by significant amounts of mid-latitude heat. And now the computer models are pointing towards a major North Atlantic storm developing early this weekend, moving over Greenland and then into the middle of the Arctic Ocean Sunday night-Monday. This storm will be very powerful…as strong as any classic North Atlantic ocean winter storm, and will bring significant amounts of high winds, battering waves and high “heat” to the Arctic. How warm? Perhaps as warm as 50-60 degrees F above normal temperatures over much of the Arctic Ocean. This will mean highs near or just above freezing up to the North Pole!
This storm is forecast to initially form southwest of the tip of Greenland and east of Quebec Friday and will beginning moving over Greenland Saturday. Sunday, the system will begin to impact the Arctic, with warm and moisture transport from the North Atlantic (all the way from the Azores!) increasing abruptly late-Sunday. By Monday morning, models indicate waves moving up the Fram Strait toward the Arctic may be as high as 30 ft in strong south-southwesterly flow. Over the sea ice sheet, the low pressure system will be intense as it emerges from Greenland…possibly sub-960 millibars with widespread wind gusts of up to hurricane-force likely over much of the interior Arctic Ocean east and south of the low on the Atlantic side.
Why this storm is so significant is because the Arctic sea ice is continuing to undergo collapse because of anthropogenic climate change. If the Arctic climate warms to the point that it simply cannot support sea ice in the warm season, with the Arctic Ocean warming as a result of very low albedo (reflectivity to visible light which would otherwise limit warming) compared to white ice (or latent heat of melting/freezing, instead of heat going into warming the ocean directly), this will have dramatic effects on not only regional climate but global climate (I can go into greater details in this in the comments or provide resources). Generally this was something expected much later in the future, but may occur earlier than expected, although it is difficult to predict when exactly this will occur as it would be nonlinear and abrupt. However, as mentioned, ice volume and extent for ice are running at record or near record lows across the Arctic Basin. Some of these effects on albedo and heating have already begun to be felt over the past several years on the marginal seas which are beginning to become increasingly ice free during the warm season (Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, Eastern Siberian Sea), but it’s important to not have the interior Arctic Ocean lose significant ice. Particularly in the winter, but it has been struggling just to freeze this winter! For more on recent sea ice developments see these videos by Paul Beckwith (M.Sc, PhD candidate; HERE and HERE).
In the meantime, while we have year to year variability…various teleconnection patterns, anthropogenic forcing (CO2, other gasses) is the most dominant regime on our climate and so even while I must emphasize weather is not climate…I must also emphasize that climate is a statistical distribution of weather events; and so extreme weather events which are increasing in frequency and magnitude are a sign of our climate shifting to more extreme conditions and in sensitive places (particularly cold climates like the Arctic), those shifts are incredibly noticeable.
–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey