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From Heat Wave to Snowstorms, March Goes to Extremes

What a difference a year makes.

Last March, the U.S. was basking in a heat wave that drove temperatures into the 70s all the way to the Canadian border, as winter snows rapidly retreated and flowers bloomed. Unaware of the devastating drought to follow, the warmth prompted farmers all across the nation to plant their crops several weeks early, and a record corn harvest was predicted.

Forecast sea level pressure departures from average from the GFS computer model. This shows the large area of unusually high atmospheric pressure over Greenland. 
Click on the image to enlarge. Credit: Weatherbell.com.

Fast forward to March 2013 and millions of Americans are shivering as an unrelenting string of winter storms have brought heavy snow from the Midwest to the Northeast, and colder-than-average temperatures to much of the East since February.  

The past two days have provided the perfect example of that weather. On Tuesday, heavy snow fell across much of New England, bringing a foot or more of snow. That after Monday's nasty wintry mix of snow, sleet, and freezing rain pelted New Yorkers.

To put that weather in context, consider that by March 19, 2012, more than 2,200 warm-temperature records had been set or tied across the U.S. That is about 1,000 more than had been set or tied so far this March.

Perhaps no other location best illustrates the whiplash between March 2012 and March 2013 than International Falls, Minn., known as the “Icebox” of the nation. On March 18, 2012, International Falls recorded a high temperature of 79ºF, which was a monthly all-time high. 

And what was the high temperature in International Falls on Monday? A chilly 28°F, with a low of 14°F. It was even colder on Tuesday, with the forecast high temperature of just 16°F.

A similar reversal is occurring in Chicago, where the first day of spring last year brought a high temperature of 85°F, which was a monthly record. This year? Try 60-degrees cooler, with a forecast high on Wednesday of just 25°F.

The weather pattern that is responsible for this year's cold weather is unusual, even though it is not yielding extremely cold temperatures across the U.S. In fact, March is running near average for the lower 48 states. Still, after last year's nonexistent winter and downright summer-like spring, any cold and snow in March may seem like a shock to the system.

Click on the image to enlarge.

The weather map across the Northern Hemisphere features a sprawling and unusually strong area of High pressure over Greenland that is serving as an atmospheric stop sign, slowing weather systems as they move from west to east, and allowing storms to deepen off the eastern seaboard and tap into more cold air than they otherwise might have.

That is not your typical fair weather area of High pressure, either. Some computer models have been projecting that, sometime during the next couple of days, the Greenland High could come close to setting the mark for the highest atmospheric pressure ever recorded.

The blocking pattern has helped direct cold air into the lower 48 states as well as parts of Europe, while the Arctic has been experiencing dramatically warmer-than-average conditions, particularly along the west coast of Greenland and in northeastern Canada. Blocking patterns are often associated with extreme weather events, from heat waves like the one that occurred last March, to historic cold air outbreaks and blizzards.

A similar blocking pattern was in place at precisely the wrong time in October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy made its way northward from the Caribbean. The convoluted jet stream pulled Sandy westward into New Jersey, with devastating results. Some researchers have hypothesized that this blocking pattern was related to Arctic climate change.

Forecast surface temperature departures from average from March 18-23, 2013. 
Click on the image to enlarge. Credit: Weatherbell.com.

One way to view the blocking pattern is through the lens of the Arctic Oscillation, or AO, which is a large-scale variation in surface air pressure between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. When the AO is in a negative phase, the average surface air pressure is above average in the Arctic and below average in the mid-latitudes. This sets up opposing temperature patterns, with warmer-than-average conditions in parts of the Arctic, and cooler-than-average conditions in parts of North America and Europe. Right now the AO index is at its lowest reading of anytime during the 2012-2013 winter.

Arctic climate change fingerprints?

Recent research suggests that rapid Arctic climate change, namely the loss of sea ice cover, may be contributing to blocking patterns like we're seeing right now. That rapid decline in Arctic sea ice since the beginning of the satellite record in 1979 may be altering weather patterns both in the Far North and across the U.S.. Some studies have shown that sea ice loss favors atmospheric blocking patterns such as the pattern currently in place, while others have not shown statistically significant changes in blocking patterns across the Northern Hemisphere, at least not yet. Arctic sea ice extent declined to a record low during the 2012 melt season.

A study published in 2012 showed 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 northern 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 said, is becoming “wavier,” with steeper troughs and higher ridges. 

A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that reduced sea ice cover can favor colder and stormier winters in the northern midlatitudes.

As sea ice melts, it exposes darker ocean water, which absorbs more of the sun’s heat, causing the water temperatures to increase. During the fall, the heat that was added to the oceans gets released into the atmosphere as sea ice reforms, and this added heat is bound to change weather patterns somehow (this is a process known as "Arctic Amplification"). The “how” part is what’s open to debate.

Researchers examining the possible links between Arctic warming and the weather in the U.S., Europe, and other areas must contend with the large amount of natural variability that affects winter weather patterns, and the very short observational record of how the atmosphere responded to extreme losses of sea ice. In addition, climate models actually show a reduction in blocking patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, rather than the increase that one would expect given a warming planet with less Arctic sea ice. However, the models may not be capturing blocking well at the present time, let alone the future. 

Related Content
Historic March Heat Wave Sets New Milestones
Global Warming May Have Fueled March Heat Wave Odds
Arctic Warming Is Altering Weather Patterns, Study Shows
A Closer Look at Arctic Sea Ice Melt and Extreme Weather
W
arming Arctic Fueling Cold, Snowy Winters, Study Says

Comments

By Bob Bingham (New Zealand.)
on March 19th, 2013

We are having changes in New Zealand but not as catastrophic as in the Northern hemisphere. http://www.climateoutcome.kiwi.nz/
I suppose our concern would be West Antarctica but its not the same as the North Pole.
The big action is in the sea but not so much is known about that.

Reply to this comment

By Jack (CASSIS)
on March 20th, 2013

The “climate swerve” is the last canard launched by the IPCC because their theory about the anthropically induced global warming is no longer holding water since the GW has stalled in 1998 until now while the carbon dioxide rate in the atmosphere was steadily climbing.
Indeed all the datas collected since 1998 at a global level are clearly showing that all the years since 98 were cooler than before, at various degrees.
Many other scientific investigations on the purported “swerves” confirm that these have nothing to do with the CO2 rate and are not more “extreme” than those observed many decades ago.

Reply to this comment

By Bob Henson (Boulder, CO)
on March 20th, 2013

Great roundup! I’m struck by how the mirror-image effect of March 2012 vs. 2013 is similar to the sharp contrast between the winters of 2010-11 and 2011-12.  That one was also focused on the central and eastern U.S.:
http://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/opinion/6666/whither-our-winters

Reply to this comment

By John Russell (Devon, UK)
on March 21st, 2013

I know you’re USA-centric but it would endorse the point you’re making to mention that we’re experiencing very similar dramatic swings in the weather here in the UK.

Last year we’d seen a relative heat wave by the first day of Spring and were in drought conditions. This year we’re still in the middle of winter. Last year’s Spring led into s summer of record flooding in England. This year?

Reply to this comment

By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on March 21st, 2013

“Some studies have shown that sea ice loss favors atmospheric blocking patterns such as the pattern currently in place, while others have not shown statistically significant changes in blocking patterns across the Northern Hemisphere, at least not yet”

Up to the early 2000’s most studies pointed to less blocking.  There were two reasons: first the temperature contrast from melted ocean to land would increase therefore increasing the polar jet which results in decreased blocking.  The second reason was rationalization of less blocking in the 1990’s.  Now that there is more blocking that work is mostly forgotten and replaced with new work about decreasing latitudinal temperature contrast (i.e. “changing temperature balance” referred to above) and a more variable polar jet and increased blocking.  This is just more rationalization.

The reason there is more or less blocking is primarily natural weather patterns (blocking feeds blocking) and the lack of solar activity primarily acting through the stratosphere.  There are no simple causes and effects.  It is certainly not as simple as less ice creates blocking.  In fact the reverse is true in some cases, some specific areas with more and less ice in winter are created by the blocking.

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By Alex (Greenland)
on March 22nd, 2013

I agree with John Russell. It’s a rule of thumb (based on old colonial history) that when cold and snowing in Greenland, it’s warm and sunny in Denmark, Europe and versa vice. As to myopic Jack Cassis, it is true that 1998 had a hot spike, but that doesn’t change the clear upward global trend on all scales: decades, centuries, even including the Medieval Warm Period:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumental_temperature_record

It’s only when you look back 120 thousand years or more that one could reasonably presume a ‘normal’ anomaly:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/ca/EPICA_temperature_plot.svg/800px-EPICA_temperature_plot.svg.png

As an aside, here in Nuuk Greenland we’ve relocated our annual nationals ski races high up in the mountains because the snow has melted around the capital. Same goes further north for the Arctic Circle Race in April http://www.acr.gl

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By Chip Knappenberger (Tucson, AZ 85719)
on March 22nd, 2013

Andrew,

I would suggest that you add Screen and Simmonds (GRL, 2013) to your review. They found little change at all in winter blocking and indications of declines in spring blocking in the North Atlantic sector over the past 30 years.

-Chip

Reply to this comment

By Susan Anderson (Boston, MA)
on March 22nd, 2013

Your reporting is outstanding!  Thank you.

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By Andrew Freedman (New York, NY)
on March 22nd, 2013

Chip, thanks for the heads up re: that study.
-A

Reply to this comment

By N_Jessen (Portland, OR)
on March 23rd, 2013

I wonder if you could assume a normal anomaly even back 120 Ky, given the rate of heating and the lack of any natural forcing that can account for it. Jack, though, is simply regurgitating a claim based on one ‘surface’ temperature record that essentially excludes the Arctic, when much of the extra heat goes into the oceans (and ocean-atmoshere heat exchange varies):
http://skepticalscience.com/Breaking_News_The_Earth_is_Warming_Still_A_LOT.html

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By Steve Bloom (Oakland, CA 94610)
on March 24th, 2013

Oh hey, Chip, don’t forget to say hi to Tony Lupo next time you see him! 

Chip being Chip, you might want to run it by one of the CC scientists before taking his word for it, Andrew.

Actually, I have a catch-all response for him:  “You keep referring to studies.  I do not think they mean what you say they mean.”

Although it is amusing that he said that near the peak of a near-record winter/spring NH blocking event.

Oh yes, this other recent paper somehow slipped Chip’s mind.

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