'Wacky' weather theory may be why Europe is colder than the Arctic

February 28, 2018, 2:20 p.m.
A polar bear and its cub walk along loose sea ice.
Photo: FloridaStock/Shutterstock

The Arctic and Europe are both having some very odd weather. It's been colder in London and Zurich than at Cape Morris Jesup at the northern tip of Greenland. Rome had a snowstorm on Monday that resulted in school closures and snowball fights. Meanwhile, the currently sunless Arctic is about 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) above normal, clocking in at 17.6 F (minus 8 C).

So what's the deal with this downright bizarre weather sweeping from the North Pole to the Mediterrean?

Per the World Meteorological Organization, a "sudden stratospheric warming event" about 18 miles (30 kilometers) above the North Pole caused a split in the northern polar vortex. This vortex, a low pressure system of strong winds, normally keeps the Arctic nice and chilly during the winter months, but the split has allowed a rush of warm air into the region while pushing a jet stream of cold south, toward Europe.

While this is certainly an anomaly, it isn't without some degree of warning. Back in 2015, a group of researchers proposed a controversial hypothesis called "warm Arctic, cold continents," which has since been called"wacky" by other climate scientists. Basically, the hypothesis proposes that as global warming decreases Arctic sea ice and exposes warmer waters, those waters release heat into the atmosphere. This, the hypothesis suggests, will alter atmospheric patterns, like the polar vortex.

It's a hypothesis that isn't included in a lot of climate models, but it's one that's proven consistent with this year's forecast. Still, scientists are urging caution about upending the normal expectations for weather patterns ... mostly.

"This is too short-term an excursion to say whether or not it changes the overall projections for Arctic warming," Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told the Guardian.

"But it suggests that we may be underestimating the tendency for short-term extreme warming events in the Arctic. And those initial warming events can trigger even greater warming because of the 'feedback loops' associated with the melting of ice and the potential release of methane."

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