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North Pole reaches 30 Celsius hotter than normal Thursday

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Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Thursday, December 22, 2016, 3:23 PM - The Arctic has been suffering some bizarre weather extremes as of late, and even the start of Winter hasn't cooled things down, as North Pole temperatures have climbed to 30oC hotter than normal for this time of year.

The Sun has not climbed above the horizon in the High Arctic since late October, but that hasn't kept temperatures near or at the North Pole from climbing dramatically at times since then.

Now, in late December, in the darkness of the Arctic winter, air temperatures at the North Pole have actually reached the freezing point, as recorded by weather buoys floating within a few degrees of the pole. As of the morning of Thursday, December 22 (3 a.m. EST), the International Arctic Buoy Programme (IABP), operated out of the University of Washington, recorded temperatures from these buoy up to 0oC or slightly higher.

Four Arctic buoys, managed by the IABP, reported temperatures up to the freezing point on Thursday, Dec 22, 2016. Location maps reveal the movement of the buoy since September. Darker colours along the plotted movement line denote more recent records. Credit: University of Washington


As the graphs show, the temperature has climbed up to the freezing mark and above a few times since September, however none of those events represents such a marked contrast to the temperatures that we should be seeing at the time.


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Right now, in late December, today's temperatures are 30oC or more above normal for this time of year.


Frame 1: Global Forecast Temperatures; North Pole at or just below 0oC. Frame 2: Global Forecast Temperature Anomalies; North Pole around 30oC above normal for this date. Image Credits: Climate Reanalyzer/University of Maine

In the animation above, the more colourful frame shows temperatures just above the ground (or icy ocean, in the Arctic), and there's something unusual breaking up the blues and purples that are normally covering the High North right now. A swath of green - temperatures from zero to around 10oC - is stretching from the North Atlantic into the Barents Sea, and there's even a blob of just-above-freezing temperatures almost touching the geographic North Pole.

The second panel is the telling one, however, as it shows just how warm those temperatures are compared to normal (the 1979-2000 average). That blob of heat near the North Pole represents a temperature rise of around 30oC above what is normally seen at that location, at this time of year.

What's the cause of this? A powerful storm north of Greenland and Norway, which is drawing in warmer air from the south.


Temperature anomaly maps from Dec 22 to 25, zoomed in to the Arctic, with pressure isobars added. Credit: Climate Reanalyzer/University of Maine/S. Sutherland

The zoomed-in view, above, shows the low pressure centre of this storm in the Barents Sea, as it forecast to develop over the next few days. Although winds are not shown directly on the map, the isobars - the lines of constant pressure - that are plotted overtop of the temperature anomalies give a good indication of the wind speeds. The closer the isobars are, the stronger the wind is, so the tightly-packed isobars on the north and east sides of the storm indicate the powerful winds drawing the warm air into the Arctic.

This warm air, and the strong winds accompanying it, are taking its toll on sea ice in the Barents Sea. Through a combination of melting and shoving the floating sea ice in the area farther to the north, this is contributing to the overall sluggish growth of sea ice in the Arctic that has been seen over the past few months. Right now, Arctic sea ice extent is at the lowest level ever recorded. Antarctic sea ice extent is similarly lackluster for this time of year, compared to previous years on record.


Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extents, from Jan 1, 1979 to Dec 21, 2016. Credit: NSIDC/S. Sutherland

Given that the period of diminishing Arctic Sea ice, around the middle of November, occurred just after temperatures in the Arctic experienced a similar spike to near or above freezing, it will not be surprising to see another dip following this one. While these "dips" in sea ice extent have happened in the past, roughly once a decade based on the records, another one now would slow down ice growth in the region even more. We have already seen extreme low winter maximums over the past two years. More of these warm-ups this winter (and the extended model run does give the possibility of another by the end of the year), and we may reach another new record low in 2017.

Sources: Washington Post | IABP | Climate Reanalyzer | NSIDC | Climate.gov

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