Friday, February 17, 2012
Arctic Oscillation Hammers Europe
This is not a common event in
Europe, but the mechanism is now quite clear. A colder period of climate could well produce
devastating conditions and even freeze the Rhine and the Thames. Thus answering the question why a modest
average change can be so devastating.
The fact is that
Europe is vulnerable to bouts of Arctic cold and
continental conditions which will devastate orchards in particular and
vineyards. We only know it is not common
which is a mercy.
Perhaps it is an old form of lottery. It is just that most years, the cold dump lands in continental
North America were
we are totally used to it. When it does
not, we now know it lands elsewhere and Europe
will never get used to it.
Europe Hammered by Winter, Is
Feb 16, 2012: For the first half of this year's winter, the big news was warm temperatures and lack of snow. Ski resorts were covered in bare dirt, while January temperatures in southern
topped July highs. California
Then, out of the blue, Europe got clobbered: Over the past two weeks, temperatures in
Eastern Europe have nose-dived
to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). Blizzards and the
bone-chilling cold have resulted in the deaths of over 550 people so far, with
rooftop-high snow drifts trapping tens of thousands of villagers in their homes
and cutting off access to entire towns. It has even snowed as far south as North Africa.
This map shows temperature anomalies for Europe and western
January 25 to February 1, 2012, compared to temperatures for the same dates
from 2001 to 2011. The anomalies are based on land surface temperatures
observed by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite. Russia
NASA climatologist Bill Patzert of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains what happened: "A couple of weeks ago, Mother Nature did an about face. The tight polar vortex that had bottled up the cold arctic air in the beginning of winter suddenly weakened. Cold air swept out of Siberia and invaded Europe and the
The "tight polar vortex" is caused by the Arctic Oscillation (AO), a see-sawing pressure difference between the
and lower latitudes. When the pressure difference is high, a whirlpool of air
forms around the North Pole. That’s what happened earlier this winter: the
whirlpool was more forceful, corralling the cold air and keeping it nearer the
Now the vortex is weakening. With "the AO Index going negative," as an expert or weather-nerd might put it, cold air escapes from that whirlpool and heads southward, resulting in the killing extremes now plaguing the other half of the planet.
However, even the breakdown of the vortex cannot completely account for the severity of the winter
Europe is suddenly
experiencing. As strange as it sounds, some climatologists, among them Judah Cohen of Atmospheric and Environmental
Research in ,
attribute the unusual cold to global warming. Cohen contends that since sea ice
is being melted by warmer temperatures in the Arctic, more moisture is
available for the atmosphere to pick up – and drop as snow. As a result, Siberian
snow cover has increased, and this snow cover has a cooling effect which
reaches East Asia and Massachusetts Europe.
"Cohen's research is cutting edge and could bring important improvements to forecasting climate and weather over North America and Europe," says Patzert. "Cohen and others are on the threshold of understanding of how climate change affects the behavior of the Arctic Oscillation1."
Patzert adds, however, that this winter is just one of many severe winters that have changed European history. "Looking back, Mother Nature has taken us on some very wild rides."
He cites the winter of 1683/84, when the
River in stayed frozen with a thick
layer of ice for nearly two months, as an example. England
"And let’s not forget the frigid winter of 1812, when Napoleon's Grande Armee was decimated by the extreme cold in
Patzert notes that European history would have been much different if Napoleon had had a good meteorologist on his staff and some NASA satellites to warn him about what he was marching into.
"And the turning point of World War II occurred in 1941, when Germany’s forces were nearly frozen in place," he adds.
There are many other examples2, and climate change can't be blamed for all of them.
"There's always going to be some natural variability. Every episode of high temperatures or extreme cold isn't climate change. Sometimes it's just weather!"
The weakening Arctic Oscillation could soon bring a return of winter to North America as well, although Patzert doesn't expect it to be as severe as what's happening on the other side of the
Is there any relief in sight for
"The good news is that this crippling cold snap arrived mid-winter. With the vernal equinox less than six weeks away, this AO episode will become muted – hopefully."
Hang on till Spring."