Remember that sudden, extreme plunge in temperatures throughout much of the United States in January 2014, which led to life-threatening wind chills that forced schools to close in the Midwest? Many were mystified to hear that it was caused by a disturbance of a previously obscure atmospheric phenomenon called the Polar Vortex.
Well, if you hated shivering through that cold snap, you better stock up on thermal underwear.
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A new study published by U.S. and South Korean researchers in Nature Communications predicts that as the world gets warmer, parts of North America, Europe and Asia paradoxically could be hit by such cold snaps more often due to blasts of Arctic air. The explanation is that shrinking sea ice could allow more energy to be transferred from the warmer ocean waters beneath it into the atmosphere. That energy weakens and distends the Polar Vortex, which actually is a huge cyclone of swirling high-speed winds that keeps cold air trapped in the Arctic. When the vortex weakens, it allows the cold air to slip southward.
The amount of sea ice naturally has tended to vary from year to year, and cold snaps caused by distortions of the Polar Vortex have been happening sporadically for a long time. But in recent years, apparently due to climate change, the phenomenon has been occurring more often, and since 2000 it has happened nearly every year, according to the study.
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The researchers documented that many such outbreaks of brutal cold happened a few months after unusually low sea ice levels in the Barents and Kara seas, off Russia, and constructed a computer model that matched the results.
Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., told the Associated Press that while sea ice has increased slightly this year since reaching record lows in 2012, the overall pattern since the 1970s has resulted in a decrease of about 40 percent.