Warm Arctic, Cold Continents

For the first time ever, the annual New Year’s day snowmobile parade at Iqaluit had to be cancelled this year: record high temperatures, rain, and lack of suitable ice made it impossible.

Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, is targeted for considerable growth as the Arctic melts, and the Northwest Passage opens up.

Iqaluit is the capital of Nunavut, in southern Baffin Island on Frobisher Bay, a little south of the Arctic Circle. This week, at the end of January, the weather there is as frigid as it should be this time of year – high temperatures around -25 degrees Centigrade, lows around -40. But until a couple of weeks ago, winter still hadn’t started. Temperatures were 10-20 degrees above normal, rain fell instead of snow, and Frobisher Bay had yet to freeze.

Frobisher Bay in early January should be covered by thick ice

Despite the winter weather that has clobbered those of us living in the mid latitudes south of the Arctic, the Arctic continues to get warmer, much more rapidly than the models predicted even a few years ago.

Temperatures over North America have changed. This year, as of Jan 9, they are much below normal (blues) in the mid latitudes, and much warmer than usual in the polar region (browns) (earthobservaroy.nasa.gov)

How does this affect our atmosphere? In the past, the jet stream encircled the cold polar air mass, preventing it from leaking south to the mid latitudes that it has molested this winter, as it did last winter. The jet stream is usually kept in place by the pressure differences between the cold polar air mass and the relatively warmer air of the mid latitudes.

The way it oughta be: the jet stream keeps the cold air in Canada (acer-acre.org)

But with a warmer air mass over the pole, the pressure differences are not as great, and the jet stream has weakened. Huge tongues of cold air have leaked south, and at times unexpectedly warm air has seeped into the Arctic. Climatologists have labelled this the Warm Arctic-Cold Continent condition.

The Arctic Oscillation isn't new, but the polar air mass is likely to remain warm indefinitely (nidc.org)

We should have known this was going to get complicated. Disruption of global weather patterns as the Arctic continues to warm of course was expected, but that disruption may be more violent and variable than anyone conceived. How can we have some of the hottest and fire infested months in the same year a winter like this one occurs?

It’s true that it remains difficult to be certain about cause and effect relationships between global warming and all the severe climate changes we are experiencing. But what we can be certain of is that the Arctic is warming rapidly, and that atmospheric and oceanic circulation will be disrupted as a result.

How great will that disruption become? Of course we don’t know. However, we do know that the human and economic costs of coping with severe weather events will continue to increase. Our energy will go increasingly into never ending efforts to recover from droughts, fires, floods, snow storms, ice storms, monsoons and hurricanes.

In hopes of mitigating those costs, anything that reduces the magnitude of climate warming is worth considering. Despite the other issues plaguing us all, the need for action on climate change is greater than ever. Meanwhile, in his conciliatory State of the Union speech a few days ago, President Obama did not once mention climate change.

We have a growing sense of what’s ahead. Good luck to us.

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