Wild Ride – More Cold Intrusions into North America/Europe, Powerful Warm Storm Headed for Arctic Ocean Monday

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.


Conditions of at least “Abnormally Dry” cover over 67% of the Continental US. It is the most coverage in abnormally dry conditions since February 5, 2013. It is, interestingly, the 49th greatest extent of at least Abnormally Dry conditions on record out of 944 recorded weekly updates (over 18 years now). Conditions of at least D1 “Moderate Drought” coverage over 38% of the Continental US. It is the most coverage in D1 conditions since April 22, 2014.

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).

Temperature Anomalies in the US (Sunday, Thursday) and in Europe (Monday). Widespread temps below freezing during the day in parts of central and Eastern US and central and eastern Europe during these cold periods. Very persistent warmth with highs in the 60-80s in the Southwest US.


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!

Temperature forecast by the Global Forecast System model for noon CST Monday showing near or above freezing temperature penetrating deep into the interior Arctic as a result of intense warm air advection.
A significant sector of the Arctic Ocean will have air temperatures over 40 degrees F above normal (or higher) during the day Monday.

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.

GFS depiction of the powerful low pressure system over the central Arctic Ocean on Monday. The European model has a similar strength low. Winds up to hurricane-force wind gusts and battering waves are likely conditions for the tenuous sea ice.
Forecast significant wave heights for early Monday with the worst of it in the Fram Strait.

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


Major Pattern Change for North America and Arctic Next Week.

A major weather pattern shift will be occur next week for North America into the Arctic as the jet stream…which already has been largely higher in amplitude and experiencing some blocking with little eastward progression of long-waves in the upper-atmosphere, will becoming extremely amplified (north-south) next week bringing very warm air up into Alaska, Yukon and the Arctic Ocean and a modified Arctic air mass from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada into the central US. Let’s take a look at things.

The current pattern dominating North America has been strong ridge of high pressure over the Western US or Eastern Pacific with a prominent trough over the eastern US with some fluctuation in the wave pattern east or west, but not much significant change, except in the center of the country which has seen more significant swings between these two states. The east, including even the Southeast saw significant snow. The west has seen abnormal warmth with record fires in California. Currently the ridge of upper-atmosphere ridge is forecast by US and European models to build to an extremely high amplitude the end of next week north over portions of Alaska and Yukon and into the margins of the Arctic Ocean. This as a very intense trough is forced south over the US.

European model forecast for the wave pattern of the mid-level atmosphere valid 6 pm CST 12/23.
This extreme amplification will drive an Arctic surface air high pressure system out of the Northwest Territories with very cold air this week, with this air mass advancing into the US beginning Thursday into this weekend. Meanwhile stormier conditions will moving from the Bering Sea into the Chukchi Sea driving up temperatures in the far north. And California with all the fires? Remains abnormally warm and dry.

Temperatures the afternoon of Christmas Eve (European Model forecast).

Greatest signal for low to no precipitation the next 10 days is south-central to southern CA into much of AZ and NV.
The Arctic:

As I spoke about in a previous post, the Arctic is having its second warmest year on record and lowest annual sea ice volume on record as climate change continues to abnormally warm the Arctic. The highly amplified wave pattern is much a product of the current weak La Nina pattern. However, the intensity of the amplification and resulting amplified warming of the Arctic is also a function of the long-term global warming regime dominating the polar region and causing record warmth and reductions in sea ice. I noticed this amplified wave pattern will have interesting impacts on the Arctic weather pattern and possibly the tenuous sea ice beginning next week.

Right now, a prominent surface high pressure region…associated with the Beaufort Gyre…is over the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska and eastern Siberia. By the middle of next week, this gyre will weaken as strong low pressure systems approach the Arctic from both the Bering Sea and the far North Atlantic.

Prominent high pressure of the Beaufort Gyre over the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean.

European Model depiction of low pressure system advancing into the Arctic Ocean from the Bering Sea on Christmas Eve. This may be the strongest in a series of lows (2-3) beginning late week. Stormy conditions will also impact areas near Svalbard (islands just east of northeast Greenland) late-week and weekend.
The Gyre is vulnerable because of the areas of open water and tenuous sea ice which remains over the Chukchi Sea…record low extent for this time of year. The ice being cold creates the surface high pressure system and clockwise circulation. But last year, this gyre collapsed because of slow sea ice growth allowing for storms with warm, moist air to move into the Arctic and further slowed sea ice growth. It appears this may be forecast to happen again during the tail end of this month.

European Model forecast surface temperatures showing well above normal temps shifting northward late week into Christmas Eve over the Arctic Ocean north Svalbard and the Chukchi Sea. While exact values will change, general pattern appears likely.
Depending on the strength of the low pressure systems, not only will the tenuous sea ice in the Arctic…widespread areas 1.5 meters or less in thickness (less than a meter in the Chukchi Sea)…deal with more warm air temperatures limiting sea ice growth, but also wave action which may destroy the ice, particularly from the Pacific side as cyclones are expected to move across the Arctic from the Pacific. We’ll see how much impact those storms have and how intense they are. If the upper-level wave pattern is as amplified as forecast by models 5-8 days out (no reason to think otherwise as he reach the point of good reliability for the upper-atmosphere), it’s a good set up for strong low pressure systems to develop in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic. And with the highly amplified blocking high over the Eastern Pacific, storms will be forced to track into Alaska and into the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and deep Arctic Ocean.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

La Nina Pattern Begins in the Pacific Ocean

A weak La Nina atmosphere-ocean pattern has fully developed in the Pacific Ocean. This phenomenon is part of the cool phase of the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). It is characterized by abnormally low surface pressure in the Western side of the Pacific Basin and abnormally high pressure on the Eastern side. This causes an enhancement of the easterly trade winds, causing significant upwelling of cold water along the equatorial coast of South America, with a build up of very warm water in the Western Pacific.

Schematic of La Nina oceanic ocean-atmosphere pattern in the Pacific and expected jet stream behavior and temperature/precipitation impacts in the US/Canada during a La Nina winter.

ENSO patterns, as shown above can cause noticeable changes in the seasonal weather patterns over North America, particularly during the winter months. The jet stream can become more amplified, leading to a Pacific jet producing cooler and wetter than normal conditions over the Pacific Northwest, extending into the northern tier states. Meanwhile, the “Sun Belt” of the US can see abnormally warm, dry conditions.

The caveat of all this is is the strength of the La Nina versus the degree of influence other atmospheric patterns have on the seasonal climate variability. Other patterns include the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO-surface pressure variability between the semi-permanent Icelandic Low and Azores High), Arctic Oscillation (AO-pressure anomalies between Arctic and mid-latitudes, closely related to NAO), and the Madden-Julian Oscillation (which can speed the development and enhance the effects of a El Nino or La Nina phase), among others on various timescales.

So what does it mean for our winter in the US? Well, as of now, the NWS Climate Prediction Center is generating winter temperature/precipitation forecasts accounting for the development of La Nina, with a strong latitudinal effect on temperature and precipitation. Below/above in the north and above/below in the south, respectively.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the meantime, long-range forecasts show the North Atlantic Oscillation becoming “negative” later in November (characterized by a south to north pressure gradient between the Azores high over Portugal and the Icelandic to the north). This pattern is favorable for an amplified upper-level jet stream wave pattern over North America and the North Atlantic and intrusions of cold air deep into the eastern half of the US. So in the shorter term colder than normal conditions may be possible for these areas this month (as has already occurred this week).


When it comes to these “teleconnections”…the various cycles of variability within the annual climate regime of Earth…they can most definitely give us a head’s up on to what to expect in general. A canvas of how the weather may be behave over the course of days to weeks and months. But we must keep track of how these different cycles interact with each other and how they vary individually in terms of strength and mode. One curiosity is the strength and persistence of the La Nina. If it was fairly weak, it is more likely to be dominated by other teleconnections at times during the course of the winter, versus if it intensifies and produces more persistent effects on the upper-level air patterns.

Overall, the expected winter pattern is good news for drought-stricken areas in the northern tier such as Montana and the Dakotas. We will have to watch areas along the southern tier for potential further drought development. And as mentioned, November and at least early December could feature a more amplified jet stream so that even areas in the Southeast which may end up with an above average winter overall may see serious impacts from cold because of Arctic intrusions (something for citrus growers to watch out for in Florida, for example).

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey