The Hot Zone

Winter Weather Blues

Posted by Alison Hawkes on February 17, 2010
Category : Climate Science and Scientists

By Alison Hawkes

The sci-fi author Robert Heinlein summed it up nicely: Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get. Which is why images like this one from NASA’s Terra satellite on Feb. 7 actually shouldn’t be all that confusing to anyone who knows the science behind climate change.

Heavy Snow around U.S

It looks like the East Coast is buried in glaciers – another Ice Age? Climate change nay-sayers may use the storm as Exhibit A in the debate over climate change. But Vancouver provides a breezy alternative. The 2010 winter Olympics kicked off last week to rain and fog, due to one of the strongest El Niño weather patterns since 1950. Vancouver’s temperatures this January averaged 44.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest month of January since record keeping began in 1937.

Meanwhile, the Arctic is positively balmy, owing to the arctic oscillation. Apparently we’re in an “extreme” negative cycle (probably not directly related to climate change), in which the normal air pressure system weakens, sending cool air south (“snowpocolypse”) and warmer air north.

Check this out:

Winter Temperatures and the Arctic OscillationThis image was created using land surface temperature data collected by the NASA’s Terra satellite in January. The colors correspond to the land surface temperature anomaly and, as is made clear, the Arctic is pretty hot, relative to its norm.

Weather patterns – like El Niño and the arctic oscillation — causing all the wackiness this winter. But the unfortunate result is that they may be further influencing the direction of the climate by hastening the effects of climate change. In January, arctic sea ice grew 13,000 square miles a day, which sounds like a lot but is actually about one-third the rate of the 1980s.

Without a sufficient buildup over the winter, the ice will be thinner and melt faster when summer comes. And then it becomes a vicious cycle. Darker colored water absorbs more heat than does ice, resulting in balmier ocean conditions that melt more ice and make it harder for ice to build back up again in subsequent, “positive” oscillation years.

Snowpocolypse, or whatever you want to call it, isn’t actually the demise of the East Coast. Rather, the scariest weather is where it appears the balmiest. How’s that for winter weather blues?

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