The Negative Arctic Oscillation and Global Climate Change

January 2011. Dark blue is 18C cooler than average and dark red 18C warmer.

This has been a year of weird and bad weather.  Huge snowstorms in the winter.  Lack of sea ice in the arctic.  Tornadoes wreaking havoc all over the US.  Rain in California in June (the biggest June storm in California since 1967).  Has it anything to do with global warming?

Perhaps. One climate scientist (referring to the recent California rain) has in fact called global warming “global weirding.” In other words, not just hot weather, but strange weather. And another climate scientist also explicitly made the link from recent weather to climate change back in December, likening the current phenomenon to “leaving the refrigerator door ajar,” i.e. cold air flows out (south), warm air flows in (from the upper atmosphere, following atmospheric circulation cells).  So what exactly is going on?

The above map from NASA depicts this year’s “negative arctic oscillation” an atmospheric event where high pressure forms in the arctic, warming the arctic and pushing cold air into the mid-latitudes. Dark blue is 18 degrees C colder than normal and dark red is 18C warmer than normal (a 32.4F equivalent).

All that warm air near the pole melts sea ice and permafrost and all that cold air over the US causes huge snowstorms and rainstorms and tornadoes.  Cold air rushes out, warm air rushes in: someone left the fridge open.

Ethical implications?  Heating the arctic by 18 degrees C is craziness.  The effects on sea ice (melting and losing reflectivity) and permafrost (warming, rotting, and releasing methane, a strong greenhouse gas) will cause positive feedback for additional warming, risking runaway greenhouse effect.  And the interface of cold northern air and warm southern air over the US causes disastrous weather too.

Global warming is not just about everything getter warmer.  It’s about an atmosphere which is more energetic overall.  More rain, more floods, more heat, more droughts, more wind, more weather disasters. Bad stuff. The time to try to stop climate change is now. The longer we wait the worse the problems will get.

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