Sunday, December 18, 2011

Our Extreme Weather: Is Arctic Sea Ice Loss Partly to Blame? by Jeff Masters in a Wunderblog Repost

Arctic sea ice in September 2007 reached its lowest extent on record, approximately 40% lower than when satellite records began in 1979. Sea ice loss in 2011 was virtually tied with the ice loss in 2007, despite weather conditions that were not as unusual in the Arctic. Image credit: University of Illinois Cryosphere Today.

“The question is not whether sea ice loss is affecting the large-scale atmospheric circulation…. It’s how can it not?” That was the take-home message from Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, in her talk “Does Arctic Amplification Fuel Extreme Weather in Mid-Latitudes?”, presented at last week’s American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Dr. Francis presented new research in review for publication, which shows that Arctic sea ice loss may significantly affect the upper-level atmospheric circulation, slowing its winds and increasing its tendency to make contorted high-amplitude loops. High-amplitude loops in the upper level wind pattern (and associated jet stream) increases the probability of persistent weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, potentially leading to extreme weather due to longer-duration cold spells, snow events, heat waves, flooding events, and drought conditions.

Summertime Arctic sea ice loss: 40% since 1980

The Arctic has seen a stunning amount of sea ice loss in recent years, due to melting and unfavorable winds that have pushed large amounts of ice out of the region. Forty percent of the sea ice was missing in September 2007, compared to September of 1980. This is an area equivalent to about 44% of the contiguous U.S., or 71% of the non-Russian portion of Europe. Such a large area of open water is bound to cause significant impacts on weather patterns, due to the huge amount of heat and moisture that escapes from the exposed ocean into the atmosphere over a multi-month period following the summer melt.

The extent of Arctic sea ice loss in the summer July – August – September period in 2007 was about 1.4 million square miles (3.6 million square kilometers) greater than in 1980, according to the University of Illinois Cryosphere Today. For comparison, the lost ice coverage (orange colors) was equal to an area about 44% of the size of the contiguous U.S., or 71% of the non-Russian portion of Europe.
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