The Scientists are floored and we should be too. The global heat and especially the extremely high temperature departures we’ve seen in the Arctic over the past month are flat-out unprecedented. It’s freakish-strange. And what it looks like, to this particular observer, is that the seasonality of our world is changing. What we’re witnessing, at this time — it looks like the beginning of the end for Winter as we know it.
Hottest January on Record — But the Arctic is Just Outlandish
Anyone who observes the Arctic — from scientists, to environmentalists, to emerging threats specialists, to weather and climate enthusiasts, to just regular people unsettled by the rapidly unraveling state of our global climate system — should be very, very concerned. The human greenhouse gas emission — now pushing CO2 levels to above 405 parts per million and adding in a host of additional heat trapping gasses — appears to be rapidly forcing our world to warm. To warm most swiftly in one of the absolute worst places imaginable — the Arctic.
Not only was January of 2016 the hottest such month ever recorded in the 136 year NASA global climate record. Not only did January show the highest temperature departure from average for a single month — at +1.13 C above NASA’s 20th Century base-line and about +1.38 C above 1880s averages (just 0.12 C shy of the dangerous 1.5 C mark). But what we observed in the global distribution of those record hot temperatures was both odd and disturbing.
(A record warm world in January shows extreme Arctic heat. NASA’s global temperature anomaly map above hints that tropical heat — spiked by a record El Nino — traveled northward and into the Arctic through weaknesses in the Jet Stream over Western North America and Western Europe. Image source — NASA GISS.)
Though the world was hot as a whole — with El Nino heat dominating the tropical zones — the furthest above average temperature extremes concentrated at the very roof of our world. There, in the Arctic lands of now-thawing glacial ice and permafrost — over Siberia, over Northern Canada, over Northern Greenland and all throughout the Arctic Ocean zone above 70 North Latitude — temperatures averaged between 4 and 13 degrees Celsius above normal. That’s between 7 and 23 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual for the extraordinary period of an entire month.
And the further north you went, the more heat you ended up with. Above the 80 North Latitude line, temperature averages for the entire region spiked to around 7.4 degrees C (13 degrees F) warmer than normal. For this area of the Arctic, that’s about equal to the typical difference between January and April (April is about 8 C warmer than January during a normal year). So what we’ve seen is absolutely unprecedented — for the entire month of January of 2016, temperatures were those of Springtime in the Arctic.
(For January through February of 2016, the region of 80 North Latitude and northward has experienced its warmest conditions ever recorded. Temperatures have remained in a range of -25 to -15 C for the zone — a set of temperatures more typical to those of mid to late April. Image source: NOAA.)
And for the Winter of 2016 it’s possible that the Arctic may never experience typical conditions. For, according to NOAA, the first half of February saw this record, Spring-like, warmth extend on through today. It’s as if these coldest zones in the Northern Hemisphere haven’t yet experienced Winter — as if the freak storm that drove Arctic temperatures to record levels during late December has, ever since, jammed the thermometer into typical April levels and left it stuck there.
El Nino Heat Teleconnects to Pole
Why is this all so ominous?
It would be bad if it were only a case that warmth in the Arctic just resulted in the ever-more-rapid melting of glaciers — forcing seas to rise by centimeters, inches and feet. It would be rather bad if polar warming amplified as white ice on land and over the ocean withdrew — turning a heat-reflecting surface into dark blue, green, and brown heat-absorbing feature. It would be pretty amazingly bad if such heat also resulted in permafrost thaw — again worsening human-forced warming by unlocking up to 1,300 billion tons of carbon and eventually transferring about half of that into our atmosphere. And it would be rather bad if all that extra heat in the Arctic started to meddle with the Northern Hemisphere’s weather — by altering the flow of the Jet Stream. By resulting in very persistent drought-producing ridges and storm-producing troughs.
(High amplitude waves in the Jet Stream — one over Western North America and a second over Europe — transfer lower-Latitude heat into the Arctic during an El Nino year on February 7, 2016. As polar amplification cranked up to new extremes during the record hot months of December and January, it appeared that El Nino’s ability to strengthen the Jet Stream and thus separate Equatorial heat from the colder Pole had been compromised. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)
Sadly, these events are no longer just hypothetical. The sea ice is retreating. The permafrost is thawing. The glaciers are melting. And the flow of the Jet Stream appears to be weakening.
But what if all that building polar warmth due to human fossil fuel burning had yet one more added effect? What if that hot stone tossed into the river of atmospheric circulation that we call El Nino could somehow transfer its build-up of tropical heat all the way to the Pole? What if the Jet Stream flow in the Northern Hemisphere had grown so weak that even a warm-up in the tropics due to a record-strong El Nino couldn’t significantly (through increasing Equator to Pole heat differential) speed it up. What if those new ridge zones stretched all the way into the Arctic — shoving tropical heat into the far north during El Nino events? During times when the globe, as a whole was at its hottest? During a period when heat and moisture at the surface of the Pacific Ocean was exploring a new peak due to a combination of human-forced warming and El Nino hitting the top of the natural variability cycle?
What if, somehow, that peak in tropical heat could run from the Equator all the way to the Pole?
What we would see then is an acceleration of the dangerous Arctic changes described above. What we would see is a coupling of the global warming related polar amplification signal with the top of the natural variability warm scale that is El Nino. And for the non-Winter in the Arctic that was the first month and a half of 2016 that’s what it appears we’ve just experienced.
The scientists are floored. Well, they should be. We should all be.
Hat Tip to TodaysGuestIs