Cold winter in a world of warming?

They also show a different response in surface air temperature (SAT) during December, January, and February. From their Figure 2, it is not immediately obvious from that figure that a sea-ice reduction leads to lower SAT during January. This is, however, very much in line with similar analysis that I have carried out with colleagues and struggled to find a consistent response (albeit we looked at the summer season).

But Petoukhov and Semenov provide theoretical support for their observations, and argue that the non-linear response can be explained in terms of ‘convectional-frictional’ and ‘baro-clinic-frictional’ mechanisms. The former includes warming over the areas where sea-ice disappear, and changes in the vertical temperature gradients, stability, and hence friction, while the latter involves a change in the surface friction force associated with temperature changes over distances.

I think that the scientific community will need some time to confirm this link, and there are some

important caveats: For one thing, the spatial model resolution (the size between the boxes in the grid mesh, through which the models represent the world) has an influence on their ability to represent blocking frequency. Hazeleger et al. Has observed that “… different horizontal resolutions … confirm the resolution-dependence found in NWP [Numerical Weather Prediction]”. The atmospheric model used by Petoukhov and Semenov has a fairly coarse spatial resolution (2.8 degrees x2.8 degrees), and it is legitimate to question whether it can reproduce the

frequencies of blocking events realistically, and whether that has a bearing for the conclusions.

But also the fact that the sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) were fixed in these experiments may affect the conclusions. Balmaseda et al. found that the atmospheric response to changes in sea-ice conditions may depend on the background SSTs, at least for the summer months. They also compared results from a coupled ocean-atmosphere model with the results from an atmosphere model for which the SSTs were given. Their unexpected finding was that the atmospheric response in these two cases were very different.

In fact, global atmospheric and climate models are better at describing the large picture than more regional and local characteristics. There is a limit to what they are able to describe in terms of local regional details, and it it reasonable to ask whether the response to changes in regional sea-ice cover is beyond the limitation of the global model. If different models give different answers, then it is likely that the response is not robust.

Another interesting question is whether the sea-ice the is whole story. Not long ago, there were some suggestions of a link between low solar activity and cold winters (this correlation, however, is so weak that you would never notice without statistical analysis. Also see comment here). Do these factors affect the circulation patterns over the North Atlantic? The sunspots tend to vary on a time scale of 10-12 years, but the NAO-index suggests that few of the extreme low values were repeated over two subsequent years. In other words, the NAO doesn’t show the same persistence as the sunspots. It will be interesting to see if this winter will break with previous patterns – if it does, that could be interpreted as a support of Petoukhov and Semenov hypothesis.

It is nevertheless no contradiction between a global warming and cold winters in regions like Europe. Rather, recent analysis suggest that the global mean temperature is marching towards higher values (see figure below), and Petoukhov and Semenov argue that the cold winter should be an expected consequence of a global warming.

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