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Arctic Paradox: Warmer Arctic May Mean Cold Blasts for Some

Blasts of cold and snow have gripped Europe and the United States in recent weeks, from Minneapolis to Paris. These weather conditions are leading to speculation about the role climate change may be playing in altering such extreme events.

Recent scientific studies have shown that the dramatic warming that has been occurring in the Arctic during the past few decades, along with the associated loss of sea ice cover, may be changing atmospheric circulation patterns throughout the northern hemisphere. This could be contributing to the recent outbreaks of unusually cold and snowy weather. Sea ice loss during the spring and summer melt season, which leaves a thinner and more sparse ice cover throughout the fall and early winter, is a key suspect in influencing winter weather patterns. When the ice melts, it allows incoming solar radiation to warm water and air temperatures, which in turn has an influence on atmospheric pressure and circulation, and may help shift Arctic air southward, while the Arctic remains unusually warm.

One meteorologist has described the pattern this way: "This pattern is kind of like leaving the refrigerator door ajar — the refrigerator warm up, but all the cold air spills out into the house."

Scientists refer to weather patterns featuring an abnormally mild Arctic and an unusually cold U.S. and Europe as the "Warm Arctic/Cold Continents Pattern," which is the subject of ongoing research. There are many sources of natural climate variability, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, that also play a key role in favoring cold and snowy conditions in parts of the U.S. and Europe.