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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.

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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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Extremely Warm Cyclone Predicted to Drive 50-60 F Above Average Temperatures Across North Pole

Our lexicon of what’s considered to be normal weather does not include February days in which temperatures at a North Pole shrouded in 24-hour darkness cross into above freezing ranges. But that’s exactly what some of our more accurate weather models are predicting will happen over the next five days.

Another Unusually Warm and Powerful Storm

During this time, a powerful 950 to 960 mb low is expected to develop over Baffin Bay. Hurling hurricane force gusts running from the south and digging deep across the North Atlantic, Barents, and Arctic Ocean, the low is projected to drive a knife of 50-60 F above average temperatures toward the North Pole by February 5th.

(20-25 foot surf heading for the increasingly fragile sea ice in this February 4 wave model forecast. Note the 30-40 foot waves off Iceland and associated with the same storm system that is predicted to bring above freezing temperatures to the North Pole on February 5th. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

These warm winds are predicted to bring above freezing temperatures to areas that typically see -20 to -30 F readings in February. They are expected to rage over a sea ice pack that is at record low levels. And if the storm emerges, it will hammer that same dwindling ice pack with 20 to 25 foot or higher surf.

Fragile Arctic Sea Ice Faces a Hammering

Presently, Arctic sea ice extent is trending about 200,000 square kilometers below record lows set just last year for the period of late February. And recent scientific research indicates that warm winter storms like the one that is now predicted to form can have a detrimental impact on sea ice.

(Arctic sea ice extent is presently at around 13 million square kilometers [bottom red line] — a new record low for this time of year. It should be around 15 million square kilometers and would be if the world hadn’t warmed considerably since the 1980s. Image source: JAXA.)

Not only do the storms bring warmer temperatures with them — a kind of heat wave that interrupts the typical period of winter freezing — they also drive heavy surf into a thinner and weaker ice pack. The surf, drawn up from the south churns warmer water up from the ocean depths. And the net effect can dissolve or weaken large sections of ice.

The presently developing event is expected to begin to take shape on February 4th, with warm gale and hurricane force winds driving above freezing temperatures near or over the North Pole on February 4th – 6th. To say that such an event, should it occur, would be practically unprecedented is the common understatement of our time. In other words, this is not typical winter weather for the North Pole. It is instead something we would expect to see from a global climate that is rapidly warming and undergoing serious systemic changes.

(February 5 GFS model run shows above freezing temperatures crossing the North Pole. Temperatures in this range are between 50 and 60 degrees [F] above average for this time of year. If the extremely warm cyclone event occurs as predicted, it will be a clear record-breaker. It will also further harm Arctic sea ice levels that are already in record low ranges. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Extreme Cyclone Beneath an Extreme Jet Stream

In the predicted forecast we see more of the extreme jet stream waves that Dr. Jennifer Francis predicted as an upshot of human-forced polar amplification (a condition where the poles warm faster than the rest of the globe under a larger warming regime). The particular wave in question for the present forecast involves a high amplitude ridge running very far to the north over Svalbard and knifing on into the high Arctic. The facing trough over Baffin Bay, Greenland, and North America is also quite pronounced and elongated. A feature that appears to want to become a cut off bubble of displaced polar air in a number of the model forecasts.

High amplitude Jet Stream waves during Northern Hemisphere winter as a signature of global warming are predicted by Francis and others to generate greater temperature and precipitation extremes in the middle latitudes. They are a feature of the kind of stuck and/or upside down weather we’ve been experiencing lately where temperatures in the Northeast have been periodically colder than typically frigid locations in Alaska. These flash freezes have, at times, faded back into odd balmy days in the 50s and 60s (F) before plunging back into cold. But the overall pattern appears to get stuck this way for extended periods of time.

(Very high amplitude ridge and trough pattern at the Jet Stream level of the circumpolar winds is thought by a number of scientists to be a feature of human caused global warming. One that is related to polar amplification in the Arctic. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Heat in the Arctic is driving sections of cold air south even as warm air invades through places like Alaska, Northeast Siberia, and the Barents Sea. But the main variables of this story are global heat, global warming, fixed extreme temperature and precipitation patterns, and warm air invasion. The winnowing streamers of cold air driven out over places like the U.S. Northeast are just a side effect of the overall warming trend. One that is starkly apparent in the very odd western warmth that has grown more and more entrenched with each passing year.

For Now, It’s Still Just a Forecast

As with any five day forecast, we can take this one with more than just a grain of salt at the present time. But such an extreme event is entirely possible during the present age of human-forced climate change. During late December of 2015, we identified a predicted major storm that ultimately drove North Pole temperatures to above freezing. At the time, that storm was considered unusual if not unprecedented. However, since February is typically a colder period for the North Pole region, a warm storm drawing above freezing air into that zone would be even more unusual. It would also be a feature of the larger trend of loss of typical seasonal winter weather that we’ve been experiencing for some time now.

5 FEB UPDATE: Storm and Heat a Bit Further South and East Than Predicted

A powerful warm storm in the 952 mb range did form and track across Greenland to exit over the Greenland Strait earlier today. The storm drove warm air far north, pushing above freezing temperatures past Svalbard and over the dark and frozen sea ice. It hurled gale force winds, hurricane gusts, and massive swells into the ice. But it did not push temperatures to above freezing at the North Pole as some models had earlier predicted.

(Warm cyclone hurls much warmer than normal temperatures across the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean on 5 Feb, 2018. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

It did, however crank temperature there up to -4.3 C or about 26 C above average for this time of year.

The storm is now predicted to drive above freezing temperatures across the Barents Sea, over Novaya Zemlya, through the Kara Sea and ultimately into Northern Siberia over the next 24-48 hours. In numerous regions, temperatures are already hitting near 30 C (54 F) above average. This extremely warm spike relative to typical conditions — associated with a high amplitude Jet Stream wave and related cyclone — will continue to ripple through the Arctic over the next few days.

Overall, total Arctic region temperature anomalies are predicted to range from 2.5 to 3.5 C above the 30 year average for the next few days. These are very warm departures. But not so warm as recent spikes in the range of 4 to 5 C above average for the region. In addition, there appears to be a tendency for powerful warm storms to continue to develop near Svalbard in the longer 5-15 day model runs. So the North Pole isn’t out of the woods yet for potential above freezing temperatures this February.

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