A harsh winter is spreading across the United States, with extremely cold air hitting the northeast and snowstorms expected along the east coast next week.
Forecasts predict that Chicago can expect several inches of snow. Six to eight inches of snow could fall along the I-95 corridor from Washington to New York and up to Boston on Monday and Tuesday.
“Finally, winter has made its appearance here in the northeast,” said Greg Carbin, chief forecasting operations for the National Weather Service’s weather forecasting center.
Disturbances from upper atmosphere phenomena known as the polar vortex can send icy explosions from the Arctic to mid-latitudes, cooling Europe, Asia, and parts of North America. The disturbance and its effects have persisted for an unusually long time this year, said Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, with two polar vortex disturbances so far this year and, potentially, a third underway.
Research into the interplay of complex factors that cause polar vortex explosions is ongoing, but climate change appears to be part of the mix. While warming means milder winters overall, “the motto of snowstorms in the climate change era might be” go big or go home! ” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasts at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that provides information to customers about weather and climate risks.
The United States has already experienced heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and the Great Plains last week. Earlier this month, Madrid was buried under a foot and a half of crippling snow, and parts of Siberia suffered an unusually long cold spell with temperatures 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit – and an area has recorded a temperature of nearly 73 below. (Last summer, some of the same areas experienced record heat.)
Wild weather has its origins in the warming arctic. The region is warming faster than the rest of the planet, and research suggests that rising temperatures are weakening the jet stream, which encircles the pole and generally retains this freezing air. In early January, a sudden wave of warming hit the polar stratosphere, the area five to thirty miles above the planet’s surface.
When one of these “sudden stratospheric warmings” occurs, it punches the polar vortex that can cause arctic air to move and its way through the atmosphere to people who suddenly need to. overlap and take out their shovels.
Amy Butler, a researcher at the NOAA Chemical Sciences Laboratory, offered an analogy: “Imagine a bowl of swirling water or a cup of coffee you’ve just brewed. If you suddenly put a spoon in the water and block the swirling flow just above it will start to slow down or disturb the water below.
While the scientific evidence supporting climate change is indisputable, the link between climate change and disturbances in the stratosphere is not as established. Dr Cohen was the author of an article published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change, which examined winter data from 2008 to 2018. The team saw a sharp increase in winter storms in the Northeast over the course of of the previous decade. “Harsh winter conditions are much more common when the Arctic is at its hottest,” said Dr. Cohen.
Dr Butler, however, said that in the whole historical record, which dates back to 1958, “there is no indication of a long-term trend” in disturbances from polar eddies. The weather patterns that affect the vortex “occur naturally even in the absence of climate change,” some decades showing no disturbance and other decades with almost every year.
For Dr Francis, senior researcher at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, the influence of climate change on these phenomena is inevitable, though still somewhat mysterious. “We are changing the planet in a dramatic and indisputable way,” she said. “The atmosphere is different now. The surface of the Earth is different now. The oceans are different now. So there must be connections that are yet to be discovered as we deepen our research into the stratospheric polar vortex.
However, it is becoming clear what will happen in the next few days, especially in the northeast, but it is difficult to predict precisely where the snow will fall and how deep.
“The cold is coming anyway,” said Dr. Cohen, “and someone’s got snow.