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Don Paul: Storms in the Northeast are warming the Arctic

It would be more fun to just write about the nor’easters themselves, like Thursday’s storm. It was a genuine blizzard for parts of eastern New England and Long Island.

This excitement is particularly timely because the next one coming up, on Monday, will deepen even more explosively into a stronger roaring blizzard close to Maine.

It’s not often something written on a Friday can be stated with such confidence, but models and ensembles of the models are in good agreement Monday’s coastal storm will be extraordinarily powerful and amazing in the speed of its intensification. You can run an example of such a model (the Canadian) on this link, clicking through the hours one by one, or just animating it. Keep an eye on the numbers in millibars for central pressure.

The exact impacts on land are still uncertain to an extent, since the track of this monster storm may hug the coast or go somewhat farther out to sea. And the European model shows still another monster coming close to New York City and Boston from Wednesday to Thursday behind the Monday storm, though the American and Canadian models aren’t seeing that system the same way. There's poorer agreement this far out.

For those who crave more snow around here, the backlash of these storms may provide some limited spotty accumulations in Western New York, especially on hilly terrain. However, the storms will be too far east to have a major impact in our vicinity.

One other important impact some of these great Atlantic storms is having is to further warm the Arctic, very dramatically. This past late autumn and winter season has been incredible, especially near the North Pole. Warm anomalies/differences from normal have been spectacular. For example, here is output from the U.S. CVSv2 model, supplied by through the Washington Post.

The circulation around these great counterclockwise spinning pinwheels pumps subtropical air to the arctic. These periodic warmings have led to record low winter arctic ice cover going back through archived satellite-derived ice data, which began in 1979.

While subarctic regions have had plentiful polar air in place, including vast swaths of Canada and Eurasia, the actual polar region temperatures have been nothing if not freakishly warm at times. At latitudes above 80 degrees north, 2017 is carving a new path for warm winter temperatures frequently showing numbers not normally seen until late spring.

During this cold season’s periodic extreme warmings to the north, temperatures have twice spiked to around 50 degrees F above average for the date, and may do it again by Thursday next week. That can melt ice even at the North Pole in midwinter. February polar temperatures are modeled to end up close to 35 degrees F above average.

Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, wrote in Earth Magazine, “After studying the Arctic and its climate for three and a half decades, I have concluded that what has happened over the last year goes beyond even the extreme.”

Climate models successfully predicted in the 1980s that the Arctic would warm faster than the rest of the globe. Much of Antarctica’s ice lies above a huge, rocky continent. Ice at the center of that continent will not be melting anytime soon, despite weakening and melting of Antarctic ice around the continent’s edges and on its coastal waters.

The Arctic Ocean is quite different. It is frozen water without a land base. Ice is highly reflective and sends much of the solar energy reaching it back into space. Where the ice thins and melts, dark waters lie beneath. Those waters absorb rather than reflect the sun’s heat. With the tremendous reduction in Arctic Ocean ice, its reflectivity/albedo has been reduced as well, and more solar energy is being absorbed over large expanses of water and thin, slush ice than has been the case for centuries.

These ferocious storm systems have considerably sped up the process this season. Just how much, if any of humanity’s hand is in these storms is almost impossible to determine. It may well be we have nothing more to do with these Atlantic storms than we did 100 years ago.

But what about the warming which preceded these storms, and the increased release of powerful greenhouse gas methane along with CO2, all weakening the resistance of sea ice to warming and reducing the Arctic’s albedo? That is far easier to tie to human activity and our role in the increase of greenhouse gases CO2, methane and some lower volume gases.

As a control, the climate models have been run/initialized with CO2 and other greenhouse gases back at the levels where they were around 1900, and with natural warming mechanisms maxed out just to see what else could be causing this warming. The answer thus far: climate scientists, modelers, atmospheric physicists and chemists are in strong consensus the warming can be explained by nothing other than human activity. In fact, the models show that Earth would have been slowly cooling rather than warming during the last century without the added greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, as I wrote in a very recent article, there doesn’t seem to be any way to quickly turn these problems around:

“The bad news is there are no magic switches to flip to turn off either land subsidence or rising sea levels. Newest studies run on sophisticated models demonstrate even if there were some magic way to turn off additional human greenhouse gas emissions, the long shelf life of CO2 in the atmosphere would continue to produce more warming on a global average for many decades and possibly a century or more to come. Even shorter-lived gases of methane produce warming (much more efficiently than CO2), and while the gases might theoretically disappear in this magic scenario, the heating they produced would not. Oceans are the biggest heat sink on the globe. The heat they absorb tends to eventually travel deep due to vertical ocean circulations. These deep waters, once heated, stay heated for incredibly long time periods. None of this is to suggest human efforts to mitigate these impacts are completely futile. It is important, however, for us to have some proper perspective on what the future holds, and what we probably can and can’t do about it.”

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