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Why winters are getting colder when the world is getting warmer

In recent years, the world has witnessed a puzzling phenomenon: despite global warming, winters in regions like East Asia and North America are becoming colder.

This has led to a series of extreme weather events that contradict general climate change predictions.

Historically, Arctic warming and a weakened jet stream have been pointed to as culprits, yet climate models have struggled to confirm this theory conclusively.

Understanding extreme weather

The 2021 Texas power outage, triggered by a rare cold snap, underscores the urgent need for precise climate models.

These models are vital for forecasting extreme weather events and mitigating their socioeconomic impacts.

Recognizing this, leaders in climate technology have set a critical objective: to predict climate trends for the upcoming decade.

A recent discovery by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), in collaboration with Yonsei University.

Senior researcher Mi-Kyung Sung from KIST’s Sustainable Environment Research Center and professor Soon-Il An of Yonsei University’s Center for Irreversible Climate Change have identified the mid-latitude oceans as key players in generating abnormal weather patterns, particularly in East Asia and North America.

Cold winter weather and climate change are different

This finding is crucial for developing mid to long-term strategies to address winter climate changes.

Ocean currents, by transporting heat energy as well as suspended and dissolved matter, significantly influence the weather and climate of nearby regions.

Areas with rapid temperature changes within a narrow latitude band, such as the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean and the Kuroshio Current’s downstream region in the Pacific Ocean, are termed “ocean fronts.”

The KIST-Yonsei research team attributes the rise in extreme cold waves to the excessive heat accumulation in these ocean fronts.

Their research reveals a striking correlation: from the early 2000s until now, the unusual cold trend in East Asia aligns with heat buildup near the Gulf Stream, and in North America, it corresponds with intensified heat near the Kuroshio Current.

Essentially, these oceanic frontal regions act as thermostats, influencing the frequency of winter cold waves and abnormal high temperatures.

The accumulation of heat in these ocean fronts can span years to decades. During such periods, continental regions might experience a ‘warming hiatus,’ seemingly defying the global warming trend. In contrast, periods of ocean frontal cooling may lead to accelerated warming in these regions.

The future of colder winter weather

This research suggests that the recent decadal cooling trend is a temporary fluctuation within the broader global climate system.

It implies that as the accumulated heat in the ocean fronts dissipates, we can expect warmer winters to become more common.

Furthermore, climate model experiments, which varied the heat levels near ocean fronts, align with these observations.

This consistency challenges the conventional sea ice theory and underscores the importance of accurately modeling ocean front variability in climate predictions for the next decade.

Climate variations in a warming world

As global warming progresses and alters the ocean’s structure, regional climate variations could undergo significant changes.

Climate model experiments with increased greenhouse gases indicate that North America may face shorter and fewer warming hiatuses, whereas East Asia might experience more frequent alternations between warming hiatuses and acceleration.

These continental differences are driven by the distinct responses of the Kuroshio Current and the Gulf Stream to global warming.

“Applying the effects of ocean fronts revealed in this research to global warming climate models can improve climate change forecasts for the near future,” said Dr. Mi-Kyung Sung of KIST.

“It will provide important references for long-term forecasts of winter energy demand and the construction of climate change response infrastructure to prevent climate disasters such as the 2021 Texas power outage,” Sung concluded.

Better climate models yield better forecasts

In summary, this pioneering research spearheaded by KIST and Yonsei University offers a vital new perspective in understanding the complex interplay between global warming and regional climate patterns, particularly the phenomenon of colder winters amidst a warming planet.

By highlighting the pivotal role of mid-latitude ocean fronts in modulating extreme weather events, the study challenges prevailing theories while highlighting new avenues for enhancing climate models.

This advancement is crucial for more accurate predictions of future climate trends, enabling societies to better prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

As we face the increasing challenges of a dynamic climate, such insights become invaluable tools in our ongoing efforts to adapt to and navigate the complexities of Earth’s ever-changing climate system.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Communications.


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