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Arctic warming will cause extreme cooling elsewhere

A new study shows that Arctic warming will, paradoxically, lead to an increase in the frequency of extreme winter weather in North America. 

“The publication of the paper is especially timely given the extreme winter of 2020/21: record warm Arctic, low Arctic sea ice, deep Siberian snows, a protracted and complex polar vortex disruption, record-breaking cold in the US, Europe and Asia, disruptive snowfalls in Europe and the US and most notably the record breaking and possibly unprecedented combination of cold and snow in Texas,” explained study lead author Dr. Judah Cohen.

The anomalous cold snap seen in Texas may be part of a larger climatic trend toward extreme weather events, but until now no study has provided a meteorological mechanism for how events like that may be related to anthropogenic climate change and Arctic warming. 

Dr. Cohen says his team’s study provides cautionary evidence that a warming planet will not necessarily protect us from the devastating impacts of severe winter weather.

The new study argues that recent periods of extreme cold weather can be attributed to what authors term a stratospheric polar vortex disruption. As waves of high and low pressure interact across northern latitudes in Europe, caused by melting sea ice and snowfall across northern latitudes, they are then amplified by similar interactions in North America. This rapid wave amplification of high and low pressure zones makes severe weather events much more likely. 

“There has been a long-standing contradiction between an apparent increase in cold extremes in winter in midlatitudes even as temperatures globally are warming,” said Professor Chaim Garfinkel.

“This study helps resolve this contradiction and highlights that an apparent increase in such midlatitude cold extremes in winter should not be used as an excuse to delay taking urgently needed action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Alex Ruger, Staff Writer

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