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Winter 2021 promises Americans severe snow storms and cold weather

In the week between late December and early January, temperatures in the atmosphere over the Arctic soared 100 degrees Fahrenheit (56 Celsius). At first glance, the picture may seem alarming, but this is a natural phenomenon that occurs every couple of years. Experts say that human-induced climate change could increase the likelihood of severe winter storms. The publication told more about this. CBS News.

Photo: Shutterstock

This is called Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW) and is associated with temperatures between 50 and 000 feet (100-000 km) above the ground. This disrupts the typical winter climate in the Arctic stratosphere, known as the polar vortex, and tends to result in more severe winter weather in parts of the United States.

The polar vortex is a huge vortex of cold, low-pressure winds rotating counterclockwise, which quickly move around the polar circle from west to east. But when SSW occurs, which is also strong enough, the winds often change and become easterly, and the polar vortex splits into two or three separate eddies, which then drift south towards the middle latitudes and carry cold air with them.

In most cases, SSW travels down through the clouds to the Earth's surface over a period of several weeks, disrupting the structure of high Arctic winds around the world in mid-latitudes such as Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. As a consequence, extreme winter weather is forming, and given the expected pattern in the US, this is likely to happen on the East Coast.

The ongoing SSW has been described as a "major" event. Since late December, temperatures have increased from -110 degrees Fahrenheit (-79 Celsius) to -10 degrees (-23 Celsius) at 100 feet (000 km) above the North Pole.

Causes of sudden stratospheric warming

Expert on sudden stratospheric warming and the link between changes in the Arctic and mid-latitude weather at Verisk's Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), Dr. Judah Cohen says the onset of sudden stratospheric warming begins much closer to the earth, in the atmospheric layer called the troposphere. But for this abrupt destruction to travel upward from the troposphere to the stratosphere, excess energy from extreme weather conditions is needed.

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When all the numbers are processed, 2020 will be one of the warmest, if not the warmest year on record in the Arctic. This is especially true in northern Asia, near the Barents, Kara, Laptev and Siberian Seas, where in some parts of the region the average temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit (6 Celsius) above normal.

Even for the Arctic, which is warming three times faster than the rest of the globe due to climate change, this phenomenon is a sharp deviation from the norm. The result is a record low sea ice extent off the coast of Siberia.

According to Cohen's theory, the lack of ice cover and the fact that it took several weeks longer than usual to recover this fall set off a chain of events in which the normally dominant winter jet current in Asia intensified. This enhancement helps initiate sudden stratospheric warming.

A jet stream is a kind of river with a fast flow of air in the upper atmosphere, which carries storms from one place to another. Like waves in the ocean, it sways up and down, from north to south, as it flows around the earth. These waves are called atmospheric waves. And although most of the energy moves horizontally around the globe, some of the wave energy can move vertically, transferring energy up or down, especially when these waves are amplified.

Cohen explains that at any given moment, the wave pattern is naturally predominantly stretched across Eurasia (compared to the rest of the globe). This will typically not affect the stratosphere. But when this already large wave becomes even more intense, the energy in the wave can spread up into the stratosphere and cause chaos.

This connection between a warm Arctic, weak ice cover and enhanced jet currents is the reason Cohen believes climate change is leading to more frequent SSWs, but admits it is a controversial topic.

And while the theory behind the link has meteorological implications, and some research does support the link, Dr. Zach Leib, a climate scientist at the University of the Arctic, says there are many works to be found that both support and refute the theory. “Because of the chaos and noise in our atmosphere, it is still difficult to understand the links between climate change in the Arctic and the polar vortex,” explains Leib. "This topic remains an active area of ​​research and discussion."

But in a recent article, Leib was indeed able to find a strong link between the Arctic climate and the stronger, colder high-pressure area over eastern Siberia, which is the key to Cohen's theory. Leib's analysis shows that this effect will intensify if global warming worsens.

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Cohen suggests that the warming process now taking place in the stratospheric Arctic began in October. In northwestern Russia and Scandinavia, the warmer Arctic Ocean leads to an intensification of the thermal dome, which pushes the jet stream northward.

With less sea ice coverage due to the warmer Arctic, the overlying atmosphere absorbs more moisture from the Arctic Ocean and, when it is cold enough, dumps more snow east of the thermal dome. This snow cover, Cohen says, creates an ultra-cold air mass over the interior of Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. This colder air has the opposite effect on the jet stream in Eastern Siberia and the North Pacific, moving it southward.

This is unlikely to be a coincidence, but two startling records have recently been set for this pattern. On December 28, Mongolia experienced the unofficial highest pressure ever recorded on Earth.

Then, just three days later, the opposite happened: the North Pacific and Alaska recorded the lowest pressure on record.

“I would say all of these events are related,” says Cohen. "The strengthening of the Siberian Maximum, coupled with the deep Aleutian minimum, is critical to triggering Sudden Stratospheric Warming."

Extreme winter weather approaching

Cohen says that after a stratospheric warming event, the strongest impacts usually occur after about two weeks, when the atmosphere mixes the systems and new patterns are established. The timing and extent vary from event to event.

For this particular SSW event, it appears that the main outbreak will occur first in Europe and East Asia until mid-January. But then computer models show that a shift could occur with the possibility of an invasion of the United States in late January.

Along with a gradual increase in the amount of cold air in the east in the coming weeks, the jet stream will provide many opportunities for snow storms. While many of them won't hit the ground with prolonged weather-friendly extreme winter weather, chances are the puzzle pieces will come together for a pair of memorable winter storms.

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Cohen warns that extreme winter weather can last for quite some time. “After SSW, the period of increased risk of cold air outbreaks and snowstorms is usually four to eight weeks. It doesn’t snow all the time, but it is episodic, ”he explained.

After years of studying these phenomena, Cohen said, a clear pattern has emerged. Warm arctic conditions and a weaker stratospheric polar vortex are associated with more extreme cold weather in some parts of mid-latitudes.

This does not mean that winters in mid-latitudes are getting colder. On the contrary: in general, winters are getting warmer due to climate change, although some areas do heat up more slowly due to this effect. This is because the types of cold air episodes in mid-latitudes are becoming more likely due to the intensification of the vortex in the Arctic.

For the United States, the trends are clear: Cohen's research shows a direct link between intense warming in the Arctic and more winter storms in the eastern United States.

This may sound counterintuitive, but as global warming has intensified in recent years, the number of large blizzards in the northeast of the country has increased. In fact, many of the worst snowstorms in New York City history, such as the January 2016 snowstorm, have occurred in the past two decades. While this may be due in part to natural variability, Cohen believes that changes in the Arctic are clearly at play.

It should be noted that this trend towards more severe snowstorms is likely caused by other factors associated with warmer climates, such as higher ocean temperatures, more available humidity, and more intense storms due to the extra energy.

This means that for now, climate change could lead to heavier snowfalls in areas where there is more moisture and still cold enough for snow, such as the Midwest and Northeast. But in areas where temperatures often exceed thresholds for snow, such as in the middle of the country, snowfall tends to decrease.

So, over the next few weeks, if you live in the eastern part of the country, get ready for some real winter weather and possible snowfall.

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