While it may be tempting to conclude the biting cold and endless snow characterizing this winter in the Northern US and Europe is just a random weather event, scientists say it's a result of very rapid climate change.
The warming and melting of the Arctic is happening much faster than expected. Some experts expect the summer Arctic ice cover to be essentially gone in as little as five years. Just a few years ago, no one thought a summer ice-free Arctic could happen before 2060.
Arctic temperatures have been 21 degrees C above normal for over a month. New data reveals that huge volumes of warmer water from the North Atlantic are flowing into and warming the Arctic Ocean, researchers reported in the journal Science.
"Boats were still in the water during the first week of January," said David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, referring to southern Baffin Island, some 2,000 km north of Montreal. This is a region that receives just four or five hours of weak sunlight during the long winter. Temperatures normally range from -25 to -35 degrees C but were above zero on some days in January.
An international team of researchers analysed marine sediments and found that temperatures of the northward inflowing Atlantic water varied by just a few tenths of a degree Celsius during the past 2,000 years. However, in the last hundred years temperatures have shot up by two degrees C.
The Arctic and Antarctic regions are key drivers of Earth's climate. The snow and cold in the eastern US and Europe during last year's winter is being repeated this year - likely the result of the loss of Arctic sea ice.
Over 90% of excess heat trapped in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is going into the oceans.
As more and more sea ice melts, there is more open water to absorb the summer sun's heat. A day of 24-hour summer sun in the Arctic puts more heat on the surface of the ocean than a day in the tropics, James Overland of the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in the United States told Inter Press Service .
That extra heat in the ocean is gradually released into the lower atmosphere from October to January as the region slowly re-freezes months later than normal. This is a fundamental change - a large part of the Arctic Ocean is radiating heat instead of being cold and ice-covered. That has disrupted wind circulation patterns in the northern hemisphere, reported Overland and other researchers at the International Polar Year Oslo Science Conference in Norway last June.
The result: the Arctic stays warm and mid-latitude regions become colder and receive more snow for much of the winter. Last December was the coldest south Florida has experienced in more than a century of record-keeping.
Most of Britain suffered through its coldest December ever. Up in the Arctic, Coral Harbour on the northwest corner of Hudson Bay was above zero degrees C for two days in early January for the first time in history. Much of the eastern Arctic centred around Baffin Island averaged +21C above normal between Dec. 17 and Jan. 15 this year.
This looks to be the new normal since Arctic experts agree the melting sea ice is now locked into a death spiral.
"In future, cold and snowy winters will be the rule rather than the exception" in the eastern United States and Europe, Overland previously told IPS.
This week the U.S. northeast suffered through its sixth major snowstorm this winter, breaking all snowfall records.