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‘Astonishing’ Ice Melt May Lead to More Extreme Winters

The record loss of Arctic sea ice this summer will echo throughout the weather patterns affecting the U.S. and Europe this winter, climate scientists said on Wednesday, since added heat in the Arctic influences the jet stream and may make extreme weather and climate events more likely.

The “astounding” loss of sea ice this year is adding a huge amount of heat to the Arctic Ocean and the atmosphere, said Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s like having a new energy source for the atmosphere.” Francis was one of three scientists on a conference call Wednesday to discuss the ramifications of sea ice loss for areas outside the Arctic. The call was hosted by Climate Nexus.

The extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements. The line on the image shows the average minimum extent from the period covering 1979-2010. Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL.

On August 26, Arctic sea ice extent broke the record low set in 2007, and it has continued to decline since, dropping below 1.5 million square miles. That represents a 45 percent reduction in the area covered by sea ice compared to the 1980s and 1990s, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), and may be unprecedented in human history. The extent of sea ice that melted so far this year is equivalent to the size of Canada and Texas combined.

The loss of sea ice initiates a feedback loop known as Arctic amplification. As sea ice melts, it exposes darker ocean waters to incoming solar radiation. The ocean then absorbs far more energy than had been the case when the brightly colored sea ice was present, and this increases water and air temperatures, thereby melting even more sea ice.

Peter Wadhams, the head of the polar ocean physics group at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., told BBC News on September 6 that the added heat from sea ice loss is equivalent to the warming from 20 years of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas that is causing manmade global warming.

During the fall, when the sun sets once again and the Arctic Ocean begins to refreeze, the heat in the ocean gets released back into the atmosphere. Since the jet stream, which is a corridor of strong winds at upper levels of the atmosphere that generally blows from west to east across the northern mid-latitudes, is powered by the temperature difference between the Arctic and areas farther south, any alteration of that temperature difference is bound to alter the jet stream — with potentially profound implications. It just so happens that the jet stream steers day-to-day weather systems.

Francis published a study last year in which she showed that Arctic warming might already be causing the jet stream to become more amplified in a north-south direction. In other words, the fall and winter jet stream may be getting wavier. A more topsy-turvy jet stream can yield more extreme weather events, Francis said, because weather and climate extremes are often associated with large undulations in the jet stream that can take a long time to dissipate.

“We know that certain types of extreme weather events are related to weather that takes a long time to change,” Francis said.

While there are indications that the jet stream is slowing and may be more prone to making huge dips, or “troughs,” scientists have a limited ability to pinpoint how this will play out in the coming winter season.


“The locations of those waves really depends on other factors,” Francis said, such as El Niño and a natural climate pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation. “I can only say that it’s probably going to be a very interesting winter,” she said.

Francis’ work has linked Arctic warming to the unusually cold and snowy winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11, during which the U.S. East Coast and parts of Europe were pummeled by fierce winter storms and experienced cooler-than-average conditions. The winter of 2011-12 was much milder, by comparison, but Francis said it, too, was consistent with her research. Not all meteorologists agree on the Arctic connection theory, but that may change with time.

Jim Overland, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said the inconsistency of the past three winters doesn’t mean the Arctic connection hypothesis is invalid.

“People like direct causality, [the notion that] if you lose the ice every year it will cause the same effect,” Overland said. But the chaotic nature of the atmosphere means that all that scientists can say with a high degree of confidence is that “the number of [extreme] events somewhere are destined to increase” as a result of rapid Arctic climate change, Overland said.

Related content
Arctic Has Lost Enough Ice to Cover Canada and Alaska
Arctic Warming Is Altering Weather Patterns, Study Shows
Arctic Sea Ice Sets Record Low, and it's Not Over Yet
Video: Extreme Weather and Rapid Arctic Warming


By Martie Anderson (Oviedo, Fl 32765)
on September 12th, 2012

”˜Astonishing’ Ice Melt May Lead to More Extreme Winters
Arctic Has Lost Enough Ice to Cover Canada and Alaska
Arctic Warming Is Altering Weather Patterns, Study Shows
Arctic Sea Ice Sets Record Low, and it’s Not Over Yet
Video: Extreme Weather and Rapid Arctic Warming

Here is the thing. I hear different things about the warming. 1. Mars is warming which means our sun doing something to make the planets warm. 2. The earth wobbles on it’s axis and this causes a shift in the weather 3. It’s an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. I WANT ALL OF THE EVIDENCE AND THEORIES OUT ON THE TABLE AND DISCUSSED RATIONALLY BY SCIENTISTS. That’s what I want.

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By saladyears
on September 12th, 2012

Educate yourself.  These things have already been discussed by climate scientists.

1.  Mars isn’t warming: and

2.  Milankovitch cycles are well known and studied and cannot possibly be the cause of the current warming:

Climate science and evidence for climate change is not a house of cards where pulling out a single piece of evidence causes the whole edifice to collapse.  It is more like a jigsaw puzzle, one that has been assembled over more than a hundred years.  We may not know exactly where a new piece fits immediately, and pieces shift around as new pieces are uncovered, but the overall picture has gotten to the point where it is clearly and unequivocally recognizable.  Humans are changing the climate through CO2 emissions.

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By Rod Bravender (Whitleyville / TN / 38588)
on September 12th, 2012

Yes global warming is real and its worse than you think it is. Underground its even hotter and then you add the Macondo well exsplosion,uplift in volcanic activity, and the ocean levels rising. The eartquacks get worse and feed the fuil you drilling. Happen to be we can fixs it. Remember its 2012 we now have the tecnology,the nolage, the equipment, the workers to fixs it. Its up to you weather you lisen or not. I and so many outhers like me have the training to show you how to fixs it. All I need now is to get rid of the anger that seperates you all. Because these jobs have to be done together for it to work for everyone. If you want no more call me 1-931-268-2910 and will be happy exspane. Rod Bravender The Majestic Lion. ps if you CALL don’t play game with me. My job is to keep you alive and safe I get nothing out of this show some respect. SEYA

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By Robert Steinberg (Quincy MAss, 01270)
on September 13th, 2012

So, get to the point already. We had no snow at all in Quincy, Ma last winter and I didn’t miss it. So, what does it really mean. Although, Europe did get buried in ice. So, does that mean Europe will continue to have frigid winters and North America will continue to have cool balmy weather?

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By Guest
on September 13th, 2012

Hi Martie,

I hope this link helps with your questions. It explores the evidence for all the competeing theories addressing the questions you raise as well as many others:

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on September 13th, 2012

Robert: Great question. I think the answer is “maybe”.

The dramatic Arctic sea ice melt means that there is now a lot of extra heat stored up in the northern part of the planet near where the north polar jet stream flows overhead.

The path of the jet stream wobbles around and predicting the path of the jet stream is apparently really difficult at the best of times; (see the video). This path demarcates the barrier between extreme cold Arctic weather in the polar region and warmer weather to the south. So, what they are saying here is that because of this extra localized heat the jet stream will move around in a somewhat different overall fashion than ‘normal’ this winter. Maybe this means that it will loop down a bit more, or more frequently into the NE seaboard region bringing a deep freeze Arctic type winter. Or, instead it might loop up a bit more than usual delivering another mild winter for the north eastern US. Either way, someone somewhere in the north Atlantic region (here or Europe) is going to feel it.  At least that’s my take on it.

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By Dr. Edmonds (Ann Arbor, MI 48109)
on September 13th, 2012


Dear Martie Anderson (Oviedo, Fl 32765),

They are. And, they are. If you want to be a part of that conversation, go to school and become a scientist.

The professional climate science community.

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By Gloria (Frederick/Md/21776)
on September 14th, 2012

I am a very busy person, my life going in so many directions I have lived my life with whatever happens happens. To busy to read and put my thoughts into anything but what is going on around me., But as of todays reading I am getting concerned, so many rebuttals and the people with knowledge should explain things better even if some people don’t understand it the first time… help them understand more. One thing I agree with is that the scientific field wants to put some of the blame on Humans for the global warming then they should have a team working and preparing on how to Educate us Humans on how to Fix the problem. Cause and future is what they want to talk about but they should now talk about the long haul Fix we all need. If my grandchild brakes a toy i try fix it, Human are capable of destruction and Cure.  Sincerely

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By Diogeron (Bommomington, IN 47401)
on September 14th, 2012

These anecdotal comments from some people on this board suggests that mant people don’t understand the basic difference between climate and weather. Comments like, “it snowed a lot here last year, therefore climate change must be a myth” demonstrates a frustrating ignorance of the science of climate change. Until scientists do a better job of explaining to laypeople what’s going on in terms that the relatively poorly educated populace can understand, we’re in trouble.

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on September 14th, 2012

Gloria: You say you have no time to read or think about things like this.  But nevertheless here you are at this site reading and thinking and asking questions.  When you said “they should have a team working and preparing on how to Educate us Humans on how to Fix the problem.” I can imagine that a thousand climate scientists and environmental educators just started banging their heads against the wall.  So many groups of people around the world are indeed trying to do just that.  The fact that you are unaware of any of that is testament to the fact that it is remarkably difficult and virtually impossible if people aren’t paying attention. There is no easy “fix” in answer to your question. It has to do with drastically reducing our global use of oil, natural gas and coal among other things because that historical and current dependence is now finally resulting in major and bad changes to Earths atmosphere and climate. That’s what all the talk of alternative clean energy is basically about.

Try these sites for more information:

Gloria, there’s no tech support you can call to “fix” this. It needs a vast concerted, cooperative and global societal effort and even then the outcome is not guaranteed. The science is complicated. But even so people still need to hang in there and try to grasp it. If you use energy at all then you have a responsibility to at least try a little harder than you evidently have been. At the very least, that means being aware of it, talking about it with your friends and whenever possible calling our leaders to account and action. I’m just a visitor to this site too but I hope this helps a little. Have a great day.

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By Sarah
on September 14th, 2012

You can lead a horse to water, but you can not make the horse drink the water.
In other words, scientists and environmental educators (who are humans as well) can and do provide us with information on how to help with the climate change in various ways, but they are not able to make people use that information to gain knowledge and take action.

On another note, people of this century seem to be quite ignorant to what is going on, which is quite a bit on so many different levels. A number of US citizens have become very comfortable because of technology, simplistic life, the media, etc that they do not want to do anything to change. They refuse to care for the fact that our world is changing drastically and very quickly in every way. Or they may feel that they just can’t do anything to help anything because the problem is out of their control. In reality…. It is within their control, probably in ways that they have not thought of. All that they need to do is research, learn, and apply that knowledge in their life.
Is it better to be in ignorant bliss until we die or be well-informed and increase our chances of surviving using that knowledge? 

It seems to be unlikely that we, as a rational species, can group together to better our world, our ways of life.
We seperated ourselves with religion, politics, race, beliefs, wants/needs of resources, etc. What do you think would happen if we put all differences aside and come to the realization that we are all one species, we all live on the same planet (that we are help making inhabitable through overpopulation - the root of the problem), that we as a whole could be greater than ever (as the saying goes “two heads are better than one”).


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By Bill (Pembroke, ME 04666)
on September 14th, 2012

“They are. And, they are. If you want to be a part of that conversation, go to school and become a scientist.”

Dear Dr. Edmonds (self-proclaimed proxy of the professional scientific community),

One of the hardest pills to swallow regarding global warming is that there are so many professionals having self-important “conversations” about it, as if their work has any greater chance to affect it than the internal despair—or ignorance—of non-scientists.


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By Susan Anderson (Boston)
on September 16th, 2012

Recently it seems to me that acknowledging what we don’t know is part of the problem.  All sorts of people think they “know” stuff they don’t, and they feel entitled to tear down rather than to build.

It is perfectly OK to leave science to the scientists, who as a community have more integrity and intelligence than most.  They are working very hard to understand and explain what is going on, and they’ve invested a lifetime to do so.  Snipers and financial interests (big fossil fuel in particular) are very good at providing stumbling blocks, but they don’t do anything except promote their own short-term profits.  Don’t join ‘em.

Acknowledge that it’s OK to not know, and then learn what you can.  You’d be surprised to discover it’s easier than you thought.

Also, climate is weather over time (more than a decade) and space (the whole globe and atmosphere).  It’s quite likely we’ll have some snowy winters in northern areas on and off (US and Europe in particular) because all that energy and moisture has to go somewhere, and unless winter is cancelled altogether (a frightening prospect, but still a while away) that wet will fall as snow.  Keep your eye on the trends, and particularly the increase in all kinds of extremes, which have been predicted for many decades now, and are becoming as obvious as a 2 x 4.

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By Dean Miller (Spirit Lake/IA)
on September 25th, 2012

Hello Susan Anderson!

Thank you, very well said.

Your words should be framed and hung on the wall for all to see

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By P. Schlining (Baltimore, Md 21204)
on November 20th, 2012

    All of this is rather meaningless, unless ALL the major climate science groups form a consortium,
with lobbyists (Funds needed ? How about a ’ ClimatePAC ’ ? How about major media placement
full-page advertisements ?). Major press conferences ? (less tech talk, more layman points)
    Unfortunately, influence plus political power is the only way to get the attention of Congress
and the U.N. And the naysayers ? Tell them we have a hundred science organizations that says
you’re wrong. Ask them what their vision of the future is, with specifics. And jobs ? Why not a
’ JobsTrainingPAC ’  ? (I’m not kidding - politico Karl Rove just spent $400M & has nothing to show for it)
    Even get Wall Street on this. Show them the positives of investing in new energy (It might add
to rehabilitate their poor image).
    My point is: let’s get the word out in a major undertaking, so that more people in power will
understand the incredible seriousness as to what this jewel of a planet . . and us . . . is facing.

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By Joh (8590TG)
on December 3rd, 2012

So do I understand correctly that it also may not lead to extreme winters?

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