The extent of Arctic sea ice hit a dramatically new record low this summer, as a melting trend attributed to global warming continues a downward trend.
While the Arctic melt is one of the clearest signs of climate change recorded, the effects are remote to most people who aren't following trends in polar bear populations (downward) or the potential for new offshore oil drilling (upward). That changes with a new study from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that correlated a shift in wind patterns across Europe and North America with the loss of Arctic sea ice over the past six years.
We could start hearing about the extent of sea ice as a bellwether for, well, weather, just as we now look to El Nino and La Nina patterns in the Southern Pacific.
The study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the "previously normal west-to-east flowing upper-level winds have been replaced by a more north-south undulating, or wave-like pattern," as the NOAA press office described it. "This new wind pattern transports warmer air into the Arctic and pushes Arctic air farther south, and may influence the likelihood of persistent weather conditions in the mid-latitudes."
Just as it took years for scientists to define how the El Nino pattern affected weather thousands of miles away from the source, it will take time to define exactly how the new global weather pattern is likely to affect us. Like that weather pattern, this one affects us by altering the jet stream, that wave of air that brings high or low pressure, hot or cold air, billowing across the country. The early word is that this will make the jet stream wave slow down, creating more severe north-south "meanders" in the wave.
The research also suggests we should expect more extreme weather, like heavy snow, heat waves and flooding -- which is consistent with long-standing warnings associated with climate change.
"What we're seeing is stark evidence that the gradual temperature increase is not the important story related to climate change; it's the rapid regional changes and increased frequency of extreme weather that global warming is causing," said Jennifer Francis, of Rutgers University, who contributed to the research. "As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, we expect an increased probability of extreme weather events across the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, where billions of people live."
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