The not-so-strange paradox of global warming’s northern freeze

My article, below, as it appears in today’s Irish Times:

OPINION: The thaw is on (apparently); can this year’s two extreme cold snaps be linked to wider climate change?

AS 2010 draws to a close, globally it will enter the record books as a year of weather extremes. It is certain to be among the three hottest years since accurate global instrumental records began in 1850, and, despite the current cold spell over much of northern Europe, may well turn out to be the hottest.

The decade 2000-2009 has already been confirmed as the hottest yet recorded globally. The two regions now bearing the brunt of the heating are the Arctic/Greenland and sub-Saharan Africa.

The number and intensity of weather-related disasters so far in 2010 is also notable. In July and August, Pakistan experienced the worst flooding in its history, with over 20 million people forced from their homes and 1,500 deaths. This year, western India and China experienced their worst monsoon flooding since 1998. Landslides claimed over 1,400 lives in China’s Gansu province.

Meanwhile, Russia was this summer gripped by a record heatwave, with mean July temperatures 7.6C above normal. An estimated 11,000 heat-related deaths were recorded in Moscow alone. Some years ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin joked that global warming would be good for his country, as people would have to buy fewer fur coats. “The climate is changing. This year we have come to understand this,” a clearly chastened Putin said in July.

Last winter’s intense cold spell over northern Europe and much of the US was mainly attributed to a phenomenon known as the Arctic oscillation, in which a region of high pressure over the Arctic forced down bitterly cold air over northern Europe. The freeze persisted as a result of a “blocking anticyclone” that kept our usual wet and wild Atlantic weather at bay.

The upper northern hemisphere chill was “a series of weather events happening simultaneously, well below the climate scale”, according the US National Climatic Data Centre. However, the unexpected reappearance of intensely cold weather over northern Europe has led to fears the Gulf Stream, which delivers as much winter heat energy to western Europe as the sun, may be weakening.

However, the UK’s Met Office recently reported that concerns for the Atlantic Conveyor are misplaced. “This is an atmospheric effect and is not due to a slowdown of ocean circulation,” said a spokesman. Dr Gerald Fleming of Met Éireann is equally cautious, although he does point out that “two exceptionally cold periods like we’ve experienced in the last 12 months is pretty well unprecedented in around a century of Met Éireann records”. These conditions are, he states: “very much at the edge of the range of normalities”.

Recent research on declining Arctic sea ice levels suggests that the loss of significant ice cover in the Barents-Kara Sea, north of Norway and Russia is paradoxically enhancing the chilling effect of the North Atlantic Oscillation. This study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research , argues that dramatic warming in the Arctic is leading to rapidly shrinking ice cover, which in turn leads to a loss of ocean heat and a warming of the lower atmosphere.

This warming may be triggering circulation anomalies that are leading to overall northern hemisphere cooling. The computer modelling used in the research points towards a trebling of the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia fuelled by ice cover losses in the Arctic. If this turns out to be correct, “global warming” could ironically lead to sharp regional cooling and far more frequent harsh winters here in Ireland, despite the underlying heat signal, in the decades ahead.

Dr Conor Murphy of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit at NUI Maynooth is more guarded: “the current cold conditions, as with earlier last January, are due to the presence of blocking anticyclones in the Atlantic that prevent milder westerly winds from entering this part of Europe.”

He points to research from the University of Reading suggesting that these “blocking anticyclones” appear to be related to recent low sunspot activity through alterations in the high-level air current called the jet stream. “The same sunspot activity has been used incorrectly by climate sceptics to argue against the human role in changing global climate!”

The dramatic weather events which have battered Ireland in the last 24 months, cannot in themselves be extrapolated to either “prove” or “disprove” man-made climate change.

However, when viewed against a global canvas of record high temperatures, droughts, unprecedented Arctic and glacial ice melt, flood events and a marked increase in “weather anomalies”, a more ominous picture emerges.

It remains a physical impossibility that continuing to pump 27 billion tonnes of the heat-trapping gas, CO2, every year into the atmosphere could do anything other than ratchet up the global thermostat. In a rapidly warming world, we may soon need to cope with the inevitable as much as the unpredictable.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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4 Responses to The not-so-strange paradox of global warming’s northern freeze

  1. Richard says:

    “The deal comprises a “Green Climate Fund,” reaffirms a goal of raising $100 billion in aid by 2020 and has measures to protect tropical forests and new ways to share new clean energy technologies.” as reported by the Irish Times. And in contrast, multiples of these sums can be found more or less overnight to save a few banks. Clearly the world´s priorities are long past insane. How much was spent saving Anlgo-Irish, the toy of a handful of rich people? I am staggered.

  2. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    I think the goal is to raise $100 billion per annum….

  3. John Gibbons says:

    @ Richard

    Staggered is a pretty good description. A $100 billion ‘goal’ over a 10 year period, divided by 190 countries (for simplicity) equals an eye-watering 52.6 million dollars per country (including countries the size of the US, China and Germany) per annum. Wow, that should really do it alright. That loose change is of course before the back-pedalling, foot-dragging and horse trading waters it down by a factor of, say, three, to an altogether more comical figure of well below 20 million dollars per country per annum.

    If this is ‘success’, then heaven only knows what failure might look like. Still, the above calculus of despair is a triumph for the fossil fuel lobby and its many cheerleaders among right wing ‘idiots savant’ class of economists. If that sounds harsh and judgemental of a fine cadre of honest professionals doing their best, see the quote below from our own idiot-in-residence at the once-lofty ESRI:

    “At the same time, estimates of the impacts of climate change do not support the often dramatic language of the media. Estimates suggest that the overall impact of a century of climate change is equivalent to losing up to 2% of income. The impact of a century of climate change is of the same size as a year of economic growth. In the worst case, impacts may be ten times as large. Still, a deep recession wreaks as much havoc in a year as climate change would do in a century. Climate change is therefore not the biggest problem of humankind.”

    At least Bjorn Lomborg has the defence that he’s not an actual economist, and focuses his communications/propaganda at the general public and (gullible) lay media. The above is just the latest quote from someone described as an academic, and, sweet jesus, a ‘top expert on climate change’. Still, the denialist Global Warming Policy Foundation, on whose ‘Academic Advisory Council’ the above ‘academic’ proudly sits, must be well pleased.

  4. Eddie says:


    In order to save the earth from climate change and global warming we have to abandon the use of gasoline as a fuel and the use of coal as an energy source. If we keep using gasoline and coal, and don´t change our fuels and energy sources to environmentally friendly fuels and energy sources. Then the agriculture will be affected, there will be shortages of food and water and there will be flooding when the glaciers are melted away and the water level rises by 7 feet, countries like Bangladesh will disappear. Diseases will spread and there are more of them as skin cancer and various viruses and bacteria that thrive in heat and it will be dry. It can also cause conflicts, such as theft of food and water and war. Those countries and people who are affected may invade other countries such as the neighboring country for survival, and for protection and various resources such as food and water. Several million people will fly and they must have somewhere to go and then there may be conflict over land areas. When it gets warmer more people die and when it gets warmer, there are also more ozone in the air that damages the lungs and is very dangerous for people with asthma. In 70 years half of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages and the mountain glaciers will disappear, and 40 percent of the global population will have major problems because it gets its drinking water from these glaciers. When the ocean salt water reaches the land surface it will be in contact and destroy the groundwater that we drink. It will occur more natural disasters and many islands will disappear in 15 years, and Kilimanjaro glaciers to be gone soon. Gulf Stream can be disrupted and fail and then there may be a new ice age in Europe.

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