National Geographic News
Sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Sea ice forms in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence in February 2013.

Image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS/USGS/NASA

Daniel Stone

National Geographic News

Published March 26, 2013

First it was the fault of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who mistakenly forecasted a quick end to winter. Now climate scientists are saying that Arctic sea ice—or the lack of it—is a driving force behind the Northern Hemisphere's unseasonably cold spring.

As Northern Hemisphere temperatures remain below normal more than a week into the official start of spring, a team of meteorologists and climate scientists are pointing to recent research that suggests sea ice cover is a likely culprit.

Recent imaging from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center showed a historic minimum in Arctic ice cover last fall, and current data reveals that sea ice cover—which recently reached its maximum for the year—is at its sixth lowest extent in the satellite record. (Related: "Arctic Sea Ice Hits Record Low—Extreme Weather to Come?")

Less Arctic sea ice—which is caused by global warming—alters atmospheric circulation in a way that leads to more snow and ice, said climate scientist Jiping Liu, who led a 2012 study on the topic published by the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

It's a tough thing to understand. Less ice at the top of the world, often considered the planet's thermostat, might normally signal warmer global temperatures, not colder ones.

But the way weather works isn't so simple. Without a substantial ice cover, Arctic wind is less constrained. The jet stream—the belt of cool air that regulates weather around most of the Northern Hemisphere—then dips farther and farther south, bringing cold air from the Arctic closer to the Equator.

The result is much colder weather dipping into the spring much longer, and more forcefully, than normal. (See a world map of potential global warming impacts.)

Sea Ice Culprit

In trying to explain recent cold temperatures throughout the world, Liu and colleagues arrived at the melting Arctic ice by way of deduction.

"For the past few winters, large parts of Asia, North America, and Europe experienced these cold conditions above normal snowfall," said Liu, of the University of Albany.

"When we started to explore the reason why, our study suggested it was the decline of Arctic sea ice."

The problem is compounded by moisture. Arctic ice normally locks up water molecules that, in a liquid state, would evaporate and become rain. (Learn more about Earth's atmosphere.)

Less ice means more open ocean, allowing more moisture into the atmosphere to freeze and, eventually, fall. Arctic ice that melts, in effect, turns into snow in other parts of the world, like in Indiana or Missouri, which this week saw record levels of snow for this time of year.

Wild Weather

Other researchers have had similar findings about how changes in some parts of the world will drive unexpected weather around the globe. (Read more about extreme weather in National Geographic magazine.)

A study released by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2012 signaled that low sea ice and increasing quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could lead to warmer summers as well.

"Simulations suggest that these summertime highs will intensify in the twenty-first century as a result of an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations," the researchers soberly declared. (Learn about the greenhouse effect.)

Left unanswered are year-to-year anomalies, such as how last year's winter was unseasonably warm while Arctic ice continued to shrink.

The warm 2012 winter was widely credited to unexpected oscillations of the North Atlantic and Arctic weather patterns. (See a graphic of extreme-weather trends.)

Those freak seasons might continue to happen. But Liu and others believe that we're likely to see more longer and colder winters as the Arctic—and the planet in general—continues to warm.

29 comments
Jim Jones
Jim Jones

When tempos hit 165F or 70C in 2025 you all will be begging for CHEMTRAILS + Supersize please..

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

When tempos hit 165F or 70C in 2025 you all will be begging for CHEMTRAILS + Supersize please..

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

When tempos hit 165F or 70C in 2025 you all will be begging for CHEMTRAILS + Supersize please..

G. Fain
G. Fain

It's May 2, and 54 degrees feels much colder cause the wind is blowing from the north 20-30mph with 35mph gust. I live on a hill and get every bit of it. Tonight the lows will be 41 possibly lower in the rural areas which I am at, with tomorrow forecast to be colder. I live in southeast Texas. 

I can see why its hard for most not to believe in climate change or global warming. Some I have heard say without all the pollutions we would be going through another ice age....um sure.

We built our world with pollutions there is no turning around. Mouths are fed, communities are born, people are more educated along with a system that we are now trying to live globally. 

It really is simply all to be blamed by over population. Any species will wreak havoc to its environment if over populated.

We are flawed. Our intelligence isn't enough to balance our urges.

I say we have been doomed for quite some time long before we really started recording weather. 

In August it will be in the triple digits, the ground will have 2 to 6 inch cracks in them again and be as hard as concrete. Then that high heat is stretched out through the fall (what fall) you mean summer? It will probably only start getting colder till the end of December once again.

I may live in southeast Texas but we use to have seasons and rain, now all I see is a winter and summer. My family and I went through one of the worst droughts in history, 2011. Northerns use to mean rain too now its just dry 35 mph wind every time here.



Eric B.
Eric B.

"But the way weather works isn't so simple. Without a substantial ice cover, Arctic wind is less constrained. The jet stream—the belt of cool air that regulates weather around most of the Northern Hemisphere—then dips farther and farther south, bringing cold air from the Arctic closer to the Equator."

How does the missing ice in the Arctic influence the Jet Streams?
The missing ice plates were mostly swimming on the ocean and were not higher than about 10 meters, i think.
But the Jet Streams are blowing in a height of 10 kilometers?

Ron Thibodeau
Ron Thibodeau

There's is a lot less ice on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Laura Scheer
Laura Scheer

When scientists say the globe is warming, they are referring to an average global temperature increase of a few degrees. This seems small, but can have far reaching and hard hitting consequences on both physical and biological systems. You can't argue that a colder spring proves that climate scientists are wrong about climate change. The average global temperature increase of a few degrees is causing extreme and varying weather patterns of all kinds. Climate scientists have no reason to blame a colder spring on climate change, so why would it be made up?

Ariunaa Tur-amgalan
Ariunaa Tur-amgalan

Countries are competing with each other with economic growth, military power and economic wealth not paying attention to global warming. it is time to compete to be most environment friendly country in the world? since global warming affects us life so badly, should we work or live for luxury? should we need car that contributes greenhouse emission? just be on foot

Marie T.
Marie T.

I'm guessing people are forgetting that everything has an equal and opposite reaction. 
It also irritates me when people don't understand what climate change actually is... it's not clear cut A)it gets warmer B) it gets colder... it's more like "You guys like swimming? because I'm going to flood a lot more and hey you're going to experience more hurricanes, oh you wanted a Spring? Sorry I'm fresh out of Spring. I can do you another winter though, except for Australia I feel like I wanna burn them to cinders."
It's out of our control though, time to deal with the consequences of our actions.
I really really hate the cold, I live in England and we didn't really have a summer last year and it doesn't look like we're getting one this year... you have no idea how glum this makes me.

Dailing Chen
Dailing Chen

oh,l am always believeing that cold spring is only in china 

John Brown
John Brown

LOL! You have to admire the Cult of Global Warming...ooops, I mean Climate Changists.  When they predict more and bigger hurricanes and that didn't happen they just change their theories.  When they predicted warmer winters with less snow, and got colder ones with more snow they change their name from Global Warmist to Climate Changists.  Since the climate does tend to change that name can't embarrass them.  And now of course that people are wondering why we having an unusually cold and snowy spring on a planet that is suppose to be warming they tell us its because Global Warming is melting more sea ice so we are getting colder at the same time things are getting warmer.  Of course this is the 6th lowest sea ice they've recorded during the winter, with an accurate record stretching back...what 20 to 30 years.  Of course they don't mention we likely had warmer springs during those other 5 years when the sea ice was less, but never mind......don't let lack of data,  or meaningless data, or data that you can't correlate with anything get in the way of explaining why Global Waming is giving us a colder snowy spring, when a hotter, no snow spring was what they predicted.  Personally I think Santa Clause got mad at the Easter Bunny so he used his magic to send  the cold from the North Pole down to harrass the Easter Bunny as he runs around laying colored chicken eggs for kids to hunt on Easter. 

Donnie McBee
Donnie McBee

We had better cut back on CO2 or we are all going to freeze!  This doesn't make me believe in climate change!  Stories like this one actually makes me believe less as I look out the window at 28 degree weather and a foot and a half of snow!

Bans Herg
Bans Herg

@Eric B. Interactions are going down.  We live in dynamism.  Try to understand the ride.

Let me give a quick shot explaining the basics.  Warm temps in the Arctic mean rising air and lower pressure than historical norms (as in the norm FOR THE ENTIRE PERIOD OF HUMAN CIVILIZATION).  These lower polar pressures now more closely match the upward movement and lower pressure of the warmer mid-latitudes.  The smaller difference in pressure between high- and mid-latitudes weakens the polar jet stream; it now has less energy.  This causes lazy meanders in the jet and causes it to get "stuck" in big wave shapes for longer than normal.  Big persistent waves mean unusually warm weather or unusually cold weather depending upon if your location is below or above the jet wherever it may be.  

It is the pattern changes that are noteworthy, not really the changes themselves.  We cannot model what we have never seen. We can only say with absolute certainty that things are different and it all funnels back to too many greenhouse gasses warming the high latitudes.  A dark summer Arctic Ocean will exacerbate and initiate positive feedback; we are already on a crazy ride. 

This is serious s***, people.  It is happening empirically everywhere (look at ALL cold-weather climates) and FASTER than the science predicted just a decade ago.  Denialism is now 100% wasted energy.  

Buckle up everyone; your instinct is right.  We are out of control.  

Please try to behave properly relative to the magnitude of the moment.

Andrew Bufalino
Andrew Bufalino

@Eric B. When there is a smaller temperature gradient at lower latitudes, the jet pushes further south.

With less ice, there is more heat, and with more heat and potential energy (due to increasing moisture) in lower latitudes, weather cycles tend to be more active. Cold pools and upper levels systems peak at lower latitudes, therefore dragging the jet further south. Overall, the affects on surface heating plays a major dynamical role throughout the whole atmosphere.

Todd Brown
Todd Brown

@Craig King I would withhold my judgement until we see what the summer brings.  Remember climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.  If we have a hot summer in the US this year, will you call it climate change or just an anomaly.  If nine of the ten hottest year on record have happened in the last 15 years would that be enough to believe in climate change.  Or will it take Palm Trees in Scotland to change your mind?

Bob Strayer
Bob Strayer

@Craig King It is only counter intuitive to those lacking the ability to grasp compound concepts.

Mitchell Cline
Mitchell Cline

@Craig King Water temperature is the main difference causing less ice, not air temperature.  So while what you posted is true data, its not anything that very applicable. 

Rutger Walraven
Rutger Walraven

@Donnie McBee It doesn't make you believe in climate change, when it's almost May and there's still snow and frost across large parts of the Nothern hemisphere? Climate change is more than global warming. That's just the start of it. This article clearly explains why global warning can lead to this unusual cold spring weather.

scott tait
scott tait

@Rutger Walraven @Donnie McBee 

How do you explain the unusual warm Spring North America experienced in 2012. Sorry you can't have it both ways...oh if you are pro GW you can, I forgot.

Conor Hofer
Conor Hofer

Almost May? Jumping the gun a bit aren't we?

Israel Navas Duran
Israel Navas Duran

@Rutger Walraven @Donnie McBee

In fact, Climate Change explains everything, it's the real Grand Unified Theory that physicists have been dreaming of for more than half a century, it's the Singularity Utopia made theory.

Phil Leith
Phil Leith

@Rutger Walraven @Donnie McBee 

Climate changes.  Always has.  If we had above normal temperatures right now we would see articles claiming that it was a result of AGW.  But there's colder weather, so we're seeing articles that claim that is a result of AGW.  And if the temperature were exactly at normal (and "normal" isn't what people think it is -- it's not a "correct" temperature but the average over the past 30 years, and it slides!) we'd be seeing articles telling us how AGW is producing opposing effects that balance the temperature -- FOR NOW, BUT JUST YOU WAIT!!!!

See, no matter what, they'll claim it's Anthropogenic CO2.  That's why they started using "Climate Change" in place of "Global Warming".  Easier to argue that any change in the weather is evidence of their theory.  Er, I mean religion. 

Jenn Thayer-Wood
Jenn Thayer-Wood

@Phil Leith @Rutger Walraven @Donnie McBee Am I to understand that you don't think humanity has an effect on the planet?  We are harvesting fossil fuels from deep within the earth, burning them at an insane rate--yet this will not have any implications for the planet, over all?  I am guessing, then, that you think we "deserve" all the bounties the planet has to offer without reservation.  We can do as we please without repercussions.  

That is how a parasite thinks.

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