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A Hole in Winter’s Heart: Temperatures Rise to Above Freezing at the North Pole in February

“Weather is not Climate.”

But when a warm air influx carves a wide-ranging above-freezing hole into the heart of what should typically be ice-solid Arctic winter, then maybe it’s time to start re-evaluating the gist of the statement.

(Today, on Sunday February 25, 2018 at 0900 UTC — temperatures rose to above freezing at the North Pole. This event, which is probably unprecedented or, at the very least, an extreme instance in the polar record, is an exemplar — or a good example — of the kinds of wrenching weather changes we can expect as a result of human-caused climate change. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data source: Global Forecast System Model.)

Weather and climate are inexorably married one to the other. Though weather is often variable and tied to locality, climate is broader-ranging and roughly characterized as average weather over 30 years. When climate changes, it ultimately changes average weather. It thus changes the rules in which weather occurs. So you can end up with weather events that are typically not common or have never been seen before — like category six hurricanes, much more heavy rainfall events, historic and unprecedented droughts, and above freezing temperatures at the North Pole during February even as Arctic air is driven south over Europe.

In the context of climate change, what we’re talking about is average global weather across the span of multiple decades. In some locations, this ongoing climate change has resulted in very little perceptible weather change. In other locations, and this is more and more-so the case, the changes to weather are both disruptive and profound.

We could say that they are, as Dr. Sarah Myhre noted in our little climate and weather chat yesterday, exemplars — or good examples of alterations that are characteristic of human-caused climate change.

******

Since late January, we’ve been tracking the potential for just such an exemplar extreme weather event — temperatures rising to above freezing at the North Pole during February.

The persistent weather patterns necessary for such an event were already well in play. At the surface, warm air was continuously running northward just east of Greenland — born pole-ward by powerful storms and frontal systems. At the upper levels of the atmosphere, a huge plug of warm air was developing. One that invaded the stratospheric levels of the atmosphere by the week of February 4-11. This plug, in synergy with surface warming, tore apart the heart of cold at the roof of our world that we call the Polar Vortex.

 

(Daily mean temperatures for the entire region of the Arctic above the 80 degree north latitude line rocketed upward to new records over recent weeks. Most recent temperatures are comparable to those typically seen during late May. Image source: Zachary Labe, Arctic Temperatures.)

Nodes of cold air from the remnant Polar Vortex spiraled south — bearing with them regional packets of Arctic air and setting off extreme cold weather in the middle latitudes. Meanwhile, the polar zone just kept warming up into ranges that were increasingly uncharacteristic of Arctic winter.

An extreme wave in the Jet Stream was developing and elongating over the North Atlantic, delivering more and more warm air northward.

By February 21st, the wave had extended into a knife-like extension east of Greenland and through the Barents Sea. Beneath this abnormal Jet Stream wave, which was starting to look more and more like a trans-polar river (of a kind predicted by Dr. Jennifer Francis as a result of human-caused Polar Amplification), was an intensifying thrust of outlandishly warm surface air.

(Jet stream wave originating near Spain extends northward past the North Pole on Sunday, January 25, 2018. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Over the past 72 hours, gale force warm, southerly winds gathered in the Atlantic, then blasted north.

At this point, we were starting to see some seriously outlandish temperatures in the higher latitude regions. Cape Morris Jesup, which is the furthest north location on Greenland, by Friday the 23rd experienced 6 C or 43 F temperatures on the shores of what should be a frozen solid Arctic Ocean just 400 miles from the North Pole.

The average high temperature in Cape Morris Jesup is -20 degrees Fahrenheit during February — making Friday’s reading a whopping 63 degrees F warmer than average. For reference, a similar departure for Washington, DC would produce a 105 degree day in February.

But it wasn’t just Cape Morris Jesup that was experiencing July-like conditions for the Arctic during February. For the expanding front of that ridiculously warm winter air by Sunday had expanded into a plume stretching tens of thousands of square miles and including a vast zone of temperatures spiking from 45 to 54+ degrees F above normal.

(The zone of pink-to-white in the above anomaly map shows temperatures ranging from 45 to 54 F [25 to 30 C] above average directly over a broad Arctic region centering on the North Pole. To this weather and climate observer, it looks like a hole in the heart of winter. Also note the region of cold air pushed south over Europe and the present above average [1981-2010] global reading. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

And at the center of the warm air pulse was today’s earlier reading of 1.1 C or 34 F at the North Pole (see image at top of post). What would typically be a summer-time temperature for this furthest north location of our world happening during February. A highlight warm point in the midst of a vast plug of far warmer than normal air. A hole in the heart of winter.

We’ll wait for confirmation from experts like Chris Burt, Bob Henson, and Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, but it appears that this particular warming event — the highlight of an ongoing polar warming of the past few weeks — is without precedent in the Arctic during February. It is also an exemplar — a good example — of the kind of weather we can expect to frequent the Arctic more and more often as the global crisis that is human-forced climate change deepens and as its primary cause — fossil fuel burning — continues.

(Please also see Neven’s related excellent expert analysis of this unprecedented polar warming event at the Arctic Sea Ice Blog here. More to follow on impacts to sea ice in a developing post.)

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53 Comments

  1. wili

     /  February 25, 2018

    Thanks for covering this. I was too lazy to print out the DMT graph that I linked to last thread, but it is really quite stunning (to me, at least)! I’m pretty sure these are going to stand as record warm temps for the Arctic for this time of year. We definitely now inhabit a fundamentally different earth, climatically, than what we had just a few years ago, never mind the last few millennia or more.

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  2. wili

     /  February 25, 2018

    Musical reflection, but change the first line of the chorus to: ‘There’s a hole in winter’s heart where all the coldness goes…”

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    • wili

       /  February 25, 2018

      Even this, one of Prine’s saddest of his many great sad songs, doesn’t quite capture the deep sadness I see in these graphs, abstract though they may seem to some.

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  3. Sheri

     /  February 25, 2018

    Thank you, Robert, for the information. I find these kinds of maps a little hard to read but not that I don’t get their meaning.
    The meaning is sad and frightening and I can feel the sadness is the comments already here.
    Best to all and feeling very bad about life today….Sheri

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    • Thanks, Sheri. They’re one of the best ways to convey complex information. But the charts could certainly improve.

      Worth noting that we are going to see some serious ice losses on the Atlantic side. Already happening to some extent as ice lifts away from N. Greenland. But this event will be a rather substantial hit.

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  4. This is what I was referring to the other day with my comment about how it seems plausible that glaciers could collapse substantially faster than what current forecasts are predicting. 63 F above average is mind blowing!

    Speaking of insane, that warn system that hit the east coast of the US a few days ago produced more crazy numbers. Parts of the north east US were hitting 80’s in February!!! I’m almost 40 and I grew up in New York. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are not supposed to have June highs in the winter.

    I’m having a hard time seeing anyway humans can walk back this mess now. The numbers are just unbelievable. What are we going to see this summer, 145 F or something?

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  5. Robert E Prue

     /  February 26, 2018

    Are we looking at an abrupt climate change?

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    • We’re looking at a major temperature spike in the Arctic at this time. Part of a larger recent acceleration in Arctic warming.

      Abrupt climate change is too general a term to be responded to in a qualified manner.

      What I can say is that this event is probably historic. That it will probably have an impact on peak of freeze season — which may see record low sea ice — as well as start of melt season on a lowering platform.

      We should also note that early March weather is predicted to regress closer to mean temperatures for the Arctic. If that happens we’ll see some refreeze. But, again, this is late in freeze season.

      Should also note that recent early springs and summers have been somewhat cooler — primarily due to increased cloud cover. At some point, the winter damage to ice may flip that trend.

      Related:

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    • Here’s an animation showing the opening of water north of Greenland relative to temperature readings in the far north:

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    • rhymeswithgoalie

       /  February 26, 2018

      If you look at recent history of Arctic sea ice (google “charctic”), you’ll notice that 2007 was a strong local minimum. That year there were strong storms pushing the ice around. There isn’t much sea ice left, so it’s easier to push around and further reduce the functional surface area.

      As far as I’m concerned, any effect Arctic sea ice has on influencing the weather will soon be swamped by the effects of the rock-n-roll jet stream, if it hasn’t already.

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  6. wharf rat

     /  February 26, 2018

    Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration
    Extreme weather due to climate change displaced more than a million people from their homes last year. It could soon reshape the nation

    https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/welcome-to-the-age-of-climate-migration-w516974

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    • cushngtree

       /  February 26, 2018

      That’s a great article, touching on mult areas of the US. I just wish I could get my extended family to read it!

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  7. PlazaRed

     /  February 26, 2018

    Below freezing all last week on the Vancouver, Canada coastline north of Vancouver, from Sunday Feb 18th to Sunday today the 25th,
    Thick snow was/is on the ground up to 9 inches, just starting to melt today.
    Lifetime locals say this is very unusual.
    Strange not a breath of wind and the snow clung to the branches of the trees all week.

    Odd and unprecedented for the North Pole/ Arctic in general, probably will not bode well in the coming weeks or even months.

    Northern Europe in the grips of an icy blast from Russia, not much chance of any temps above freezing for this week.

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  8. Spike

     /  February 26, 2018

    Great write up Robert, and wow Sarah Myhre is someone who tells it straight! Here in the U.K. we are facing a colder than usual week, but media coverage is shallow, superficial and overtly biased towards big standard “explanations” of winds from Russia etc… and “Beast from the East” sensationalism without climate context. As a result folk remain ignorant, which may be what the powers that be desire.

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  9. Talking holes in the ice and a blast from the past, one out of left field with some rather nast little side effects
    https://www.9news.com.au/world/2018/02/26/17/04/secret-cold-war-missile-base-under-arctic-to-be-revealed
    Including Videos and photos from US Army records

    Secret missile base under Arctic to be exposed by climate change

    The concept is straight from a James Bond novel: a secret underground nuclear missile site buried under the Arctic ice.
    But the outlandish idea became reality when at the height of the Cold War the US readied for a nuclear conflict with Soviet Russia by burying mobile missile launchers under the Greenland ice cap.
    The project, code-named Iceworm, began in 1959 with the construction of buildings deep beneath the snow. Its blue print called for 4000km of tunnels that would enable nuclear missiles to be moved under the ice undetected by Soviet spy satellites.
    Iceworm was so secret the US only told the Danish government – which at the time governed Greenland that the base known as Camp Century was for polar research.
    But in 1968 concerns about unpredictable conditions beneath the ice caused the project to be abandoned.
    About four kilometres of tunnels along with a hospital, church and theatre for the 200 military personnel based there had by then been constructed.
    Also under the ice US Army engineers had installed a power system drawing on a nuclear reactor as well as a plumbing and sewage system.
    US military commanders were confident the base would remain buried beneath the Greenland ice for centuries – along with its hazardous nuclear and chemical materials left 30 to 65m deep.
    But now climate change is set to succeed in disclosing this Cold War secret camp and its toxic contents where espionage and spy satellites failed.
    Jeff Colgan, a scientist at Brown University, predicted Greenland’s warming temperature would lead to pollution of the pristine environment around Camp Century.
    In an article published in Global Environmental Politics, he wrote: “This waste includes tens of thousands of litres of diesel fuel, a substantial but unknown quantity of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and a reportedly small volume of low-level radioactive waste.”
    He fears warming condition will cause the chemicals to leak into the surface water and spread through the food chain.
    In addition to the environmental headache, the release of the toxic materials is sure to create a diplomatic row between the US, Denmark, and now self-governing Greenland over clean-up costs, says Colgan.

    OUCH

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  10. To the third Pole
    http://www.livemint.com/Science/f5K3pah6yCXSkZ7yXHzHMI/Himalayas-getting-warmer-snowfall-decreasing-due-to-global.html
    Himalayas getting warmer, snowfall decreasing due to global warming

    The study says total precipitation is increasing while the snowfall is decreasing with concurrent significant increase in rainfall at all zones of Northwestern Himalayas

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  11. Ahh the wondrous benefits of Carbonic Acid and other invigorating pollutants
    http://metro.co.uk/2018/02/19/evil-twin-global-warming-melting-starfish-sea-creatures-scientists-discover-7324581/

    The ‘evil twin of global warming’ is melting starfish and other sea creatures, scientists discover

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    • Ocean acidification is a result of rising atmospheric CO2. CO2 drives both warming and this very harmful assault on sea life. It’s also something you can’t solve with overall harmful solar radiation management.

      IRT ocean acidification’s impact on corals:

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  12. I noticed the same yesterday AM and posted it on Facebook.JFox Gibbons shared a link.
    19 hrs
    Today, Feb. 25, 2018, it is 33°F at the North Pole. Need I say more?

    My eyes have also been drawn to the rapid breakup of La Nina. The Pacific tropics seem to be doing a quick flip toward El Nino. Keep your eyes on the cold Humboldt Current off the Peruvian coast. If that turns warm, El Nino is assured. NOAA really likes to stay on top of El Nino predictions, so we should hear move from them soon.
    Also note that I think there is a blockage of the Gulf Stream. It appears to be backing up Note the rising water temps. in the Atlantic off of Canada. That hasn’t been there in the past years.

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    • The offshore waters of the U.S. East Coast in the Gulf Stream region have shown very warm SSTAs for some time now. At least the past 3-4 years. There is some evidence of periodic slow-down in the Gulf Stream, but the overall matter is still debated in the sciences. Some of the best work on this subject has been done by Stefan Rahmstorf. So you may want to read his recent papers and analysis.

      We have a rather warm pool of water developing deep in W PAC. However, NOAA forecast is still for ENSO neutral by summer. Will be writing an update on this soon.

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  13. Hal

     /  February 26, 2018

    I’m sorry, Robert, that the above post appeared in public. I had assumed you’d grab it and bag it .. maybe sending a copy to Dr. Myhre.

    As a writer, I enjoy and appreciate critique and corrections of my writing. As a writer, I’m sure you do, too.

    Is there a way of communicating with you directly without posting to the forum?

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  14. Andy_in_SD

     /  February 26, 2018

    Beautiful clean coal.

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  15. NevenA

     /  February 26, 2018

    I’ve quoted so much from your great post, Robert, that for all practical purposes I re-blogged it on the ASIB: a href=”http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/2018/02/talk-about-unprecedented.html”>Talk about unprecedented. 😉

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  16. NevenA

     /  February 26, 2018

    If this last try doesn’t work, it’s the last time you’ll hear from me: Talk about unprecedented

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  17. Ouch… the freezing north is hard to even imagine here in the hot tropics (I haven´t even ever saw snow in my life), but above freezing temperatures during the night in the Pole, and knowing how that´s connected to everything else, it´s frightening.

    I haven´t been able to get in social medias much lately, but I collected a few links to articles that have nothing to do with the chants of the polar, should be colder, north, but have a bit to do with the symphony around.

    Andy in San Diego already posted the Amazon´s tipping point in the last post, so I´m not posting it again. But it´s worth to notice that cumullative deforestation in the Amazon now is 23%, and the article calculates the tipping point when the floating rivers stop working and Eastern Amazon turns into savannah and desertification spreads through areas that today are Cerrado (most of Brasil´s breadbasket) to be around 20% deforestation + about +3C warming (very probable as things are)… so in order to keep the Amazon and Brasil´s agriculture, not only stopping deforestation but also urgent reforestation is needed.

    Second article: 21st Century drought-related fires counteract the decline of Amazon deforestation carbon emissions https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-02771-y – seems like positive feedbacks starting for me.

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  18. Suzanne

     /  February 26, 2018

    This tweet and graph got my attention today:
    Robert Rohde
    ‏@rarohde
    21h21 hours ago
    More
    In 2018, there have already been 61 hours above freezing at Cape Morris Jesup, Greenland.
    The previous record was 16 hours before the end of April in 2011

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  19. kassy

     /  February 26, 2018

    The freezing north is decreasing every year.

    In the Netherlands the whole winter has been balmy again. We had a couple of weeks with frost at night but above zero temperatures before the current “siberian weather” was coming in. Big difference: there was no snow at all and not much rain either.

    I used to hate this weather type because it meant real cold. WInds that felt like prickly knives, and some weeks of really cold weather and thus a longer winter because it prolonged the melt of snow and ice. And talk of the “Elfstedentocht” (never cared much about that one).

    So then the news sites started writing about our Siberian cold and while the wind is from that general direction but it is not what it used to be. Yeah the wind is cold but not that cold and there is zero ice or snow so as soon as we get nicer winds it will warm up quickly.

    I still have many younger co-workers who do think it is pretty cold but the weather is totally different then my early eighties childhood. It’s just not really cold.

    According to NOAA the last year with a temperature cooler than the twentieth-century average was 1976.

    https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature

    If you are born in 1995 so you remember weather from 2000 and on your baseline is +0,4.

    It’s quite hard to explain what it was like (also because you don’t want to be an old bore).

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    • I was born in 1972. So I, at least, experienced a couple of years that were near or below the 20th Century baseline. But I didn’t experience any year that was at or below the 1880s baseline.

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      • Robert E Prue

         /  February 26, 2018

        I was born in 1954 and remember very cold winters in the 1970s here in Kansas. Now, the kids run around in shorts in December, January.

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  20. Dave McGinnis

     /  February 26, 2018

    I’ve just begun reading the Pielkes’ “Retreat From A Rising Sea” and I live the Fla Keys. Has me thinking.

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  21. An interesting one re the Marine/atmosphere/cloud Sulfur cycle
    http://www.infosurhoy.com/cocoon/saii/xhtml/en_GB/news/scientists-discover-key-gene-for-producing-marine-molecule-with-huge-environmental-impacts/

    Scientists discover key gene for producing marine molecule with huge environmental impacts

    Dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) is an important nutrient in marine environments with more than one billion tonnes produced annually by marine phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like cells), seaweed and bacteria.

    When marine microorganisms break down DMSP, they release a climate-cooling gas called dimethylsulfide (DMS), which also gives the seaside its characteristic smell.

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  1. A Large Area of Open Water Forms in the Melting Sea Ice North of Greenland During February | robertscribbler
  2. Warmed, Wet and Blocked: Another Storm Taking Aim at the Flooded Central U.S. is Expected to Transition into a Stalled Nor’Easter | robertscribbler
  3. Sudden Stratospheric Warming and Polar Amplification: How Climate Change Interacts With the Polar Vortex | robertscribbler
  4. Atmospheric River Pummels West Coast as East is Slammed by Yet Another Nor’Easter | robertscribbler

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