Climate Change and Extreme Weather Go Together


Screenshot: Weather Channel report on November 17, 2016 titled ‘Bizarre Temperatures: North Pole Rises Above Freezing While Parts of Russia Plunge Below -40 Degrees’. Information and arrows added in red for perspective on time and location.

A recent article from Washington Post focused on relatively “super-hot” temperatures near the North Pole. The title read like a hyperbolic announcement: “The North Pole is an insane 36 degrees [in Fahrenheit] warmer than normal as winter descends”. Why not add a couple of exclamation points to emphasize the insanity? Mother Jones also covered the topic in an abbreviated elevator speech version with an equally dire headline: “The North Pole Is Now in a Death Spiral”. LiveScience took a more humorous angle with their title “Santa’s Sweltering: North Pole Soars 36 Degrees Above Normal”. There were other posts covering the same anomaly in the North Pole. The temperature anomaly does not appear to be an exaggeration based on the data graphic WaPo and other sites used, courtesy of Climate Change Institute in partnership with the University of Maine. The global illustration of temperature deviation from normal, generated from Climate Reanalyzer, mainly covers the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. Below is the heat map showing the ‘Temperature Departure from Average on Thursday, November 17th’.

The WaPo article was posted on the same day the data was cited. It is fair to surmise the staff writers and researchers were monitoring the weather anomalies for a few days as they gathered information and resources before publishing the piece. Other sites took a similar approach, albeit less detailed.


Two days earlier on November 15th, Weather Channel meteorologist Ari Sarsalari reported a “crazy thing” going on: the North Pole was above freezing (33.1°F)! [One exclamation point was used to reflect the appropriate tone in Sarsalari’s voice.] The nearest weather station to the North Pole is in Köppen, Greenland. It is a tundra climate located a few degrees south of true north at 83.4°N. By mid-November, the sun does not make an appearance north of 72°N latitude. Even further north, past 80°N latitude, the diurnal temperature range (difference between the daily maximum and minimum temperature) does not deviate much year round, in part, because of minimal to no solar radiation (the faint midnight sun hovers near the horizon during summer months in the northern most region of the Arctic).

Measurements at Köppen only go back 11 years, which coincides with a period of the largest warming trend in the Arctic. The average temperatures would have likely been colder if a minimum 30 years of data was recorded at this station. That said the maximum temperature at Köppen in the past 11 years, from the month of October through April, has not exceeded 27°F. The highest temperature recorded in November, during this span, was 17°F. And the overall average temperature for the penultimate month of the year is -17°F. The Weather Channel report on Nov. 15th confirms the relatively warm and extreme temperature anomaly provided by  Climate Reanalyzer.

For the WaPo piece, Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University professor and Arctic researcher, was asked about the temperature aberration. Francis determined “It’s about 20°C [36 degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean, along with cold anomalies of about the same magnitude over north-central Asia.” Sarsalari at the Weather Channel compared the much colder weather conditions in Tugoncani, Russia and in Zhaltyr, Kazakhstan to the relatively warmer area around the North Pole on the same day (Nov. 15th) and time (3PM GMT). The Siberian stations reported anomalously frigid temperatures. In Tugoncani (few degrees south of the Arctic circle, 64°N), it was -40.4°F, which is about 37°F below normal for November (-3°F). In Zhaltyr (upper mid latitudes, 54°N), it was -17.7°F, or approximately 27°F lower than average for the month (9°F).

Unfortunately, WaPo and many of the other sites missed on the opportunity to cover the broadening ramifications of climate change related to ‘weather extremes’; opting instead to cover the aspect of climate change associated with ‘global warming’.

There is no question, based on instrumentation and analysis, that the Earth has been warming at an unprecedented rate since 1980. It coincides with the trending decline in the seasonal expansion and contraction of the Arctic sea ice, as shown in the WaPo article. Francis, at Rutgers University, suggested “The Arctic warmth is the result of a combination of record-low sea-ice extent for this time of year, probably very thin ice, and plenty of warm/moist air from lower latitudes being driven northward by a very wavy jet stream.”


The last part of her explanation is in regards to a more amplified, undulating jet stream (upper air currents near 18,000 ft. rippling in a latitudinal and longitudinal direction), as opposed to more zonal steering currents aloft (mostly flat or little wave action). The “wavy” action in the jet stream would explain the very cold temperatures in Siberia: the upper air roller coaster creates a ridge of unseasonably warm temperatures near Greenland, following a meridional flow that contributes to a polar vortex over North Asia.


Weather data from Nov. 17 (6:00pm GMT): Left side [500mb heights: Higher isohypses (lines of equal height) in red, associated with ridges & warmer temps near surface. Isohypses in blue associated with troughs & colder temps near sfc.] | Right side [Sfc weather with isobars (lines of equal pressure). Close packing of isobars = tight pressure gradient = strong winds.]

Climate scientists and atmospheric researchers have been measuring and analyzing oceanic and weather data for several decades. With the aid of technology, computer models have even been able to calculate global land and water surface temperatures prior to the 18th century. That is significant when you consider the thermometer, instrument for measuring temperature, was invented in the early 1700’s. It was not until the 1820’s when temperature readings were covering at least 20% of the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere. Temperatures had not been officially recorded in the Southern Hemisphere until the early 1840’s in Australia and the late 1840’s in South America.

Simulations and estimates on emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)–also known as ‘Greenhouse Gases’ or GHG–have shown a strong positive correlation corresponding to the trajectory and rise in temperatures. The advent of the Industrial Revolution, followed by an increase in fossil fuel mining, has significantly contributed to the elevated concentrations of GHG. Deforestation also contributes indirectly to an increase in CO2, as there are fewer trees to synthesize carbon dioxide and water vapor as a fuel source for their metabolism and growth.



Unusual and intense hurricane / nor’easter hybrids like “Superstorm” Sandy, the unrelenting drought in California and a flood of relatively biblical proportions in Atacama Desert, Chile (driest and highest plateau in the world) will not be so uncommon in the predictable and unpredictable world of climate change. For example, in the Ural region of Russia there was a trace to a modest accumulation of snow in July 2014 (mildest month of the year). According to the regional chief weather forecaster, you have to go back a century to the last time snow was observed in the middle of summer. In the same area of Siberian, folks had been sunbathing during unseasonably warm temperatures just days before snow fell at higher elevations. Record heat and dry weather in the eastern Urals led to increasing number of wildfires. Western parts of Siberia have been experiencing an uptick in strong summer cold fronts accompanied by large hailstones, flash-flooding, and followed by sharp temperature drops (all which were once considered very rare). Floods, droughts and other extreme weather events are developing / occurring more often and with greater persistence in just about every continent across the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere–it is trending on a global scale. The increase in the variability and magnitude of extreme weather is the greatest and most costly danger of climate change.





Bitterly Cold Weather Here; Unseasonably Warm Weather There


After yet another February cold snap in the Tri-State Region, a friend from New York posted a question on Facebook asking me “to explain to us the reason for this horribly cold weather in Northeastern and Southern states. Let’s start with the Arctic blast …thanks!”

I lived in North New Jersey all my life.  Then last spring, I moved to the Pacific Northwest.  I currently live in the Seattle, WA area.  I was excited to share my thoughts on this matter, having been a meteorology student and still very much a weather enthusiast.  I offered a broader perspective in addressing the question.  Here is what I wrote:

Weather is in constant motion like fluid in a running stream. Weather on the ground is steered by the jet stream, ribbons of air currents at 18,000 ft. There are catalysts that affect (and can exacerbate) weather patterns: for example, shifts in ocean currents and sea temperatures; violent volcanic eruptions; rise in global temperatures; and deforestation. The frigid cold which has imposed its will over most of the Eastern U.S. is due to strong upper level lows rotating over the Northeast—the media like to call it the “Polar Vortex”. A strong low aloft is represented by a proportionally cold air mass at the surface. Weather abides by the laws of physics: thermodynamics (i.e. conservation of energy) plays an important part in the distribution and equilibrium of temperature extremes. Where there is a strong upper level low, there is an equally formidable upper level high somewhere else bringing unseasonably warm temperatures over the terrain it occupies. For example, it has been such a mild winter in the state of Washington, some ski resorts have been forced to close operations. And other places in the Pacific Northwest that remain open are experiencing record lows in natural snowfall, which has hurt winter businesses.

What’s becoming empirically obvious to many climatologists and meteorologists is the greater frequency of “weather extremes”—cold snaps, heat waves, droughts, floods. Whether “climate change” is contributing to increased occurrences of weather extremes is debatable. A stronger correlation is being connected with weather extremes and climate change, but can climate scientists say for sure there is a causational relationship between the two? Here is what a majority of climatologists can agree on with an increasing level of certainty: expect to experience more weather extremes, including powerful winter storms, tornado outbreaks, and stronger hurricanes.

A couple of years ago, New Jersey State Climatologist, Dr. David A. Robinson put together a great presentation titled “How is New Jersey’s Climate Changing and What Should We Expect?”  Dr. Robinson expects “increasing variability and extremes” in his state. This climatic outlook can be extended to the Northeast and elsewhere. To that point, a recent article mentions a new study linking climate change to extreme weather.


References: (February 19, 2015) (January 2013)

Overview of U.S. Tornadoes

This presentation was put together in May 2011, following a very active stretch of severe weather, esp. in the Southeast region.