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Arctic Warming is Altering Weather Patterns, Study Shows

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published April 3. Given recent news that Arctic sea ice set a record low, it's a reminder that changes in the Arctic can affect the U.S. and Europe.

By showing that Arctic climate change is no longer just a problem for the polar bear, a new study may finally dispel the view that what happens in the Arctic, stays in the Arctic.

The study, by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ties rapid Arctic climate change to high-impact, extreme weather events in the U.S. and Europe.

The study shows that by changing the temperature balance between the Arctic and mid-latitudes, rapid Arctic warming is altering the course of the jet stream, which steers weather systems from west to east around the hemisphere. The Arctic has been warming about twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, due to a combination of human emissions of greenhouse gases and unique feedbacks built into the Arctic climate system.

The jet stream, the study says, is becoming “wavier,” with steeper troughs and higher ridges. Weather systems are progressing more slowly, raising the chances for long-duration extreme events, like droughts, floods, and heat waves. 

“[The] tendency for weather to hang around longer is going to favor extreme weather conditions that are related to persistent weather patterns,” said Francis, the study’s lead author.

One does not have to look hard to find an example of an extreme event that resulted from a huge, slow-moving swing in the jet stream. It was a stuck or “blocking weather pattern” – with a massive dome of high pressure parked across the eastern U.S. for more than a week – that led to the remarkable March heat wave that sent temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast soaring into the 80s. In some locations, temperatures spiked to more than 40 degrees above average for that time of year.

The strong area of high pressure shunted the jet stream far north into Canada. At one point during the heat wave, a jetliner flying at 30,000 feet could’ve hitched a ride on the jet stream from Texas straight north to Hudson Bay, Canada. In the U.S., more than 14,000 warm-weather records (record-warm daytime highs and record-warm overnight lows) were set or tied during the month of March, compared to about 700 cold records. 

According to the study, Arctic climate change may increase the odds that such high-impact, blocking weather patterns will occur. The study cites examples of other patterns that led to extreme events that also may bear Arctic fingerprints, including the 2011 Texas drought and heat wave, which cost the state’s agricultural sector a staggering $7.62 billion – making it the most expensive one-year drought in that state’s history.

In addition, the study also mentions jet stream configurations that led to heavy snows in the Northeast and Europe during recent winters. Such events are also “consistent” with the study’s findings, according to the paper.

The reasons why the Arctic is heating up so quickly, a phenomenon known as “Arctic amplification,” has to do with factors that are unique to the Arctic environment, involving feedbacks between sea ice, snow, water vapor, and clouds. As the area warms in response to manmade greenhouse gases, melting ice and snow allow exposed land and water to absorb more of the Sun’s heat, which melts more ice and snow, and so on. A relatively small amount of initial warming can be greatly magnified in the Far North. 

The temperature contrast between the frigid Arctic and the milder mid-latitudes is what drives the powerful jet stream winds, which are so important for determining day-to-day weather conditions.

In addition to making the jet stream have more pronounced north/south swings, the reduced temperature gradient between northern and southern areas is causing the westerly component of upper-level winds to slow, especially during the fall when extra heating in the Arctic is exceptionally strong.

Path of the jet stream on March 21, 2012. Credit: weatherunderground.

The westerly component of upper-level winds during the fall has weakened by about 14 percent since 1979, the study found. 

A slight slowdown in the jet stream may not sound like a big deal. After all, jet stream winds have been clocked at upwards of 200 mph. But it turns out that slowing of the jet stream influences its shape and the motion of individual storm systems. 

Weaker westerly winds causes the big north/south swings in the jet stream to move more slowly from west to east, making weather conditions in a given location more persistent than they used to be. “That means that whatever weather you’re experiencing now is going to tend to hang around longer because the passage of those waves is really what causes the weather to change,” Francis said.

The study contains a stark warning about future weather patterns, given projections showing that Arctic climate change is likely to accelerate in coming years. “As the Arctic sea ice cover continues to disappear and the snow cover melts ever earlier over vast regions of Eurasia and North America, it is expected that large-scale circulation patterns throughout the northern hemisphere will become increasingly influenced by Arctic amplification,” the study reports.

In other words, rapid Arctic warming is expected to exert a growing influence on the weather far beyond the Arctic Circle, for many years to come. 


By Christopher Squire (Twickenham UK )
on April 3rd, 2012

Please provide a reference and if you can a link to this ‘new study’.

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By Ralph H (Cambridge, MA, USA)
on April 3rd, 2012

From a google scholar search:


Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes

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By Andrew
on April 3rd, 2012

The link is in there now at the top of the story. Hyperlinked from the word “study.”

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By tomwys
on April 4th, 2012

Haven’t read the paper yet, but I’ll be looking for open Arctic enhanced albedo, on surrounding land surfaces in the higher and mid latitudes,  factoring into their analysis.  Last year’s strong La Nina pattern lessened temperature contrast between the equatorial Pacific and northern latitudes, thus augmenting the Northern and Southern Jet Streams tendency to flow laterally from West to East.  Result?  “Alberta Clippers” crossing North America - relatively dry storms, little snowfall.

El Nino, on the other hand, with strong equatorial/polar temperature differential, does the opposite and severely undulates the Jets in a N/S orientation.  Result?  Storms with high moisture levels sourced from the Gulf or Pacific taking more N/S oriented trajectories, high snowfall levels.

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By Susan (97224)
on April 4th, 2012

Shame the paper is behind a paywall.

Isn’t this exactly what happen in the Little Ice Age
as covered in Fagan’s book: “The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850”?
...and the solar max seems to be AWOL just like then….  ugly.
I just wish they hadn’t come up with the new GCR theories and their impact during a low solar period.

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By Byron Smith (Edinburgh)
on April 4th, 2012


Is the link to the study working properly for others? I just get an error message.

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By Cliff (22204)
on April 4th, 2012

Susan, the answer is no.  To put up some hack, scientists on the carbon industry payroll, corrupt politicians and religious end-timers against strong consensus of all the world’s climate scientists is dishonest.

Reply to this comment

By Margaret Brown (Lagos/Algarve)
on February 20th, 2014

Cliff, dishonesty is not what is happening among those you denigrate. ” The World’s climate scientists” continue to research,- new opinions and finding are published and nothing is cut and dried. Personal prejudices muddy the water.

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By Steve Bloom
on April 4th, 2012

Andrew:  Thanks so much.  Very nicely done, and I see that you’re being rewarded by it being posted all over the place.

Susan:  No worries about the GCR stuff as it’s been thoroughly discredited.  Do worry about the CO2, though.

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By George (Morton Grove)
on April 5th, 2012

So this year, where the sea ice in the Arctic is more extensive than it was in 1980, and where temperatures were persistently cold thanks to a positive AO, somehow that cause the wild sing in the jet stream this past March?

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By Susan (97224)
on April 5th, 2012

  ” GCR stuff as it’s been thoroughly discredited” - Steve Bloom
I hadn’t heard that CERN had been discredited in the past 4 months!
When did that happen?

But the real question is about the comparison of the jet stream weather oscillations to the similar reports from the Little Ice Age, along with the diminutive solar max.

Since they originally predicted 2010 for max and now it is May 2013 with the note that they really don’t have a clue, it is very scary.
...and the forecast for SC25 is even more scary!

Reply to this comment

By Steve Bloom
on April 5th, 2012

Reports about the jet streams from the LIA?  Umm… specific citations?

Re the solar max, if the 22-year solar cycle was large enough to have a major effect on climate it might be something to worry about.  Fortunately it doesn’t.

Re CERN in particular, they have made no such claim.  You might want to look up the press release for the most recent relevant experiment.


Besides, just as CO2 is an near-insignificant trace gas, the sun is a small, trace star (compare to e.g. Sirius), so how could it possibly be having an effect on climate?


Keep keeping your eyes off the ball, Susan.

Reply to this comment

By susan (97224)
on April 5th, 2012

“...Fortunately it doesn’t.”.
You’re very brave to say that!
Even NASA admits they don’t have a clue about the solar cycle.
What research reports are you referring?
IPCC assumes that there is no mechanism and that the solar cycles are steady based solely on the limited changes in TSI.
At least they admit if some other mechanism is shown, all bets are off.

Yes, the press from CERN was, per careful instruction from the Bosses, was “just the facts”.
But I’ve learned that the minute Bosses start doing a CYI thing, best to keep that truck load of salt handy.

So, back to Fagan and Arctic oscillations: what should be the expectation for Britain (where we have the CET to compare) as to whether the oscillations and highly variable weather of the Little Ice Age match the current oscillations?

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By Jukka (Helsinki)
on April 7th, 2012

Excellent summary (with links) .

The slowing-down of weather variability has been evident for a few years even to a layman . Typical cycles of “dominant weather type” have gone from 1-3 weeks to 3 - 6 weeks duration. “Dominant weather type” meaning either mostly nice sunny periods, humid soggy drizzly periods or persistent successions of rainfronts. That is terminology commonly used by TV-meteorologists.

Warming impacts all the processes which produce our daily weather. The whole process changes, not just the local thermometer reading. Almost all parts of the process are sensitive to temperature, one way or another. An important starting point is the energy transfer from the oceans to the atmosphere by means of heat stored in evaporation. I.e. storms are mostly heat engines running on energy liberated by condensation.

“Climate” is a statistical description of weather, including the extremes and their probabilities of occurrence. The limits are set by physical processes, availability of energy in the first place.

The slowing-down has been easy to see qualitatively. Now also the science behind these developments is becoming clear.

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By Auntiegrav (Belgium, WI 53004)
on April 7th, 2012

Why is it so difficult to just say “there is more energy in the atmosphere” and for people to understand that this pretty simply explains everything we are trying to dumb down to the level of “climate change” or “global warming”.
Make the explanations too detailed and you lose the audience.

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By A_Jessen
on August 22nd, 2012

Susan, one problem might be that we’re currently not under the same conditions of the LIA, the overloaded carbon cycle aside:

And there’s plenty of stuff on the great lack of evidence for a strong GCR influence:

Reply to this comment

By William Hughes-Games (Waipara New Zealand 7447)
on September 5th, 2012

Looking at the jet stream at one level down, it is powered by the speed of rotation of the Polar Hadley cell and of the Ferrel cell.  The polar cell is powered by air radiating heat into space, becoming dense, sinking and spreading out south with Coriolis resulting in North East winds.  As the Arctic ocean becomes more open earlier and earlier, the sinking of air will decrease and finally reverse.  The Aug6 storm was a fairly extreme example of this.  In the fall, the air is cooling over the tundra and undoubtedly sinking but because the Arctic ocean is still giving off accumulated heat, the sinking air over the tundra will spread out North and South.  Essentially we will have a 4 Hadley cell system.  Eventually, if the Arctic becomes ice free early enough and accumulated enough energy we may reverse the whole Polar cell.  There will be added energy from the heat absorbing tundra if clear water occurs early enough.  We will now have a two cell circulation system in the Northern hemisphere with all the effects this would have.  ie.  No polar jet stream, the next jet stream further north, climate zones and with it growing zones completely altered.

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By karen zeo (toledo, oh 43623)
on September 13th, 2012

Looks like that movie “The Day After”  with Dennis Quaid   is about us !!!!!!!!!    stock up on warm clothes.

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By Thomas Maru (Lemont, Illinios 60439)
on September 18th, 2012

Not long ago there was an interesting article stating that US scientists face much stronger opposition to any views on climate change than their counterparts around the world. This is not a surprise as the United States is the greed capital of the world. Too many established cash cows threatened by the steps required to deal with these changes. As is typical with this line of thought, the necessary changes will be made in haste when it is obvious to all that it cannot be avoided. And by that time, at a highly escalated cost. Such is the US political system. Whether a natural cycle, a man made debacle, or a combination of the two (my vote), all indicators show that climate change is indeed quite real. I personally believe that the weather changes and their consequences are just beginning. And their impact will at times be beyond imagination. Once it affects enough people, pocketbooks and bank accounts, it will become “news”.

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By bren
on September 27th, 2012

It is wind farms which are changing the climate!!

97% of wind farms are in the northern hemisphere, that is why the north pole is melting.
Pretty obvious really if you think about it.

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By Camburn (North Dakota)
on April 17th, 2013

This explains it quite well.

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By 4TimesAYear (Iowa)
on September 15th, 2013

You want to amend your article now that we’ve regained so much of the ice?

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By patrick (santa barbara)
on January 22nd, 2014

The current EXTREME weather in the western and eastern US confirms the above dire warning 1.5 years ago.
It has been 100 years ago that California has had such a persistent drought.
We the ignorant. We IGNORED.
And now we will suffer.
God help us.

Reply to this comment

By Steve Hawkiins (Pocahontas Arkansas 72455)
on June 13th, 2014

So, 100 years ago, California had a drought this bad? Did “global warming” cause that one. By the way. The top five most severe droughts all occurred before 1950.

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