Tens of thousands of feet above the Arctic, the earth’s stratosphere has gone nuts, and the results are being widely felt.
Heavy snows buried the Midwest and Great Lakes regions over the weekend. As that storm swept east, ABC News reported 17.2 inches of snow in New York City’s Central Park and almost three feet of the white stuff in Newton, N.J.
Meanwhile Alaska – parts of which enjoyed a significantly warmer than usual January – returned to temperatures near normal or below. The thermometer hit 50-degrees-below zero in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska and fell to 55-below in the Yukon River Valley, according to climatologist Rick Thoman in the frozen, Central Alaska community of Fairbanks.
All this is being linked to the polar vortex, the swirl of air in the atmosphere atop our blue globe spinning through space on its never-ending journey around the sun.
The vortex dictates that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.
Down the drain
In its normal state, the polar vortex is a movement in the air that mimics water flowing down the drain in your kitchen sink. But it has behaved in anything but a normal way of late.
He Monday noted yo-yoing air pressure in the atmosphere over the Arctic that triggered record winter warmth in Scandinavia at the start of the month, a mid-January blizzard in Spain that left Madrid buried beneath more snow than it had witnessed in 50 years, and finally the snow and cold in the Northeast at the end of January and the start of February.
Alaska’s Gulf Coast basically witnessed some variation of all three of these as it oscillated from the warmth of Scandanavia to the moisture of Spain (which came more as rain than snow) to the cold of the Northeast.
Cohen admits to being a little befuddled by the PV’s behavior, observing that the challenge in the pattern of weather disruptions he’s seen suggests “at least two maybe three different disruptions. Which one influences our weather, the first, the second, the third or all three, none? I of course don’t believe none.”
That leaves three options plus a fundamental defining fact of science – the more you understand sometimes the less you know.
What humans really “know” about the world is based on conclusions that often proven faulty when exposed to ever more data. To the primitive species, a speck of dust was the smallest form of matter. Then along came John Dalton with the atomic theory in the 1800s and the size of matter kept shrinking from atoms to electrons to quarks.
This is what separates science from religion, which provides people the comfort of what they know even if that knowledge can’t be proven. Science creates a messy world of people always questioning everything.
Global warming could be driving some of what is happening with the PV. Warmer Arctic waters, versus frozen Arctic ice, clearly have effects on the air above, but the interactions are complicated.
Scientists have problems modeling the weather only weeks ahead, let alone months or years in the future. A warming planet is destined to cause climatic changes, but as with the behavior of the PV, those changes are unlikely to be as predictable as humans would like.
Cohen on Monday wasn’t even sure what is likely to happen over the course of this month, writing that “the signal from the latest PV disruption is still in the mid-stratosphere and is not predicted to reach the lower stratosphere/tropopause until the weekend. That is when the model forecasts should become reliable. (But) I did include the Climate System Forecast from February in the blog because whether I trust it or not, it is consistent with my thinking.”
So, for Alaska, here’s what one expert thinks you might expect to see in February (other than Valentine’s Day):
- “Normal to below normal temperatures will build across Alaska and Western Canada,” only to “deepen and become more widespread across Alaska.” The state has already witnessed the start of this drop.
- Seasonable cold will continue into next week for most of the state although there will be some warming along the Gulf Coast.
- Some warming will later occur along the Arctic Coast, but most of the state will remain frigid as it heads toward March.
But don’t really count too much on any of this. As the SARS-CoV-2 virus should have reminded everyone, nature still has the power to dictate the terms for life on the planet, and nature is known to toss wild cards.