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Climatologists link long winter to warming Pacific, climate change

"The water’s already warm there, and it’s just taken it over the brink to create conditions last winter and into this spring that were unprecedented," said Tim Palmer, a professor of climate physics at Oxford University.

By Brooks Hays
Climatologists link long winter to warming Pacific, climate change
Icicles hang from a cable on a breakwater at 31st Street Beach in Chicago on January 7, 2014. Chicago experienced its second day of below-zero temperatures as an arctic air mass continued to grip the region. UPI/Brian Kersey | License Photo

OXFORD, England, May 23 (UPI) -- The Western Hemisphere's long, strange 2014 winter was the result of rising temperatures in the Pacific Ocean -- warming exacerbated by greenhouse gases and climate change. That according to Tim Palmer, a professor of climate physics at Oxford University.

Palmer's latest study, published in the journal Science this week, attempts to explain the cause of the only recently-ended bizarre winter of 2014 -- a winter that featured record precipitation on both sides of the Atlantic, record lows across the Midwest, and strangely mild temperatures and depressed snowfall in the West.

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The strange winter has previously been explained by the oft-cited "polar vortex," in which a drooping, slowed-down, snake-like jet stream pushed colder air farther south and warmer air north. This phenomenon has been blamed on the warming of the poles. But Palmer says the vortex is more likely the result of a warming Pacific.

Unusually warm waters stretching from Fiji to the Indonesia birthed an endless supply of powerful thunderstorms, Palmer says. And it's the energy of these storms, pushing up into the atmosphere, that contorted the jet stream into its s-like shape.

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"The sea temperatures in that crucial region of the west Pacific, which are some of the warmest ocean temperatures anywhere in the world, have reached these all-time record warming through an additional effect, which is man-made climate change," Palmer recently explained to Bloomberg.

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"The water's already warm there, and it's just taken it over the brink to create conditions last winter and into this spring that were unprecedented," he added.

Scientists are split over Palmer's conclusions.

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"I think it is basically right," Kevin Trenberth -- a climate data scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado -- told National Geographic.

But scientists who originally pinned the warming Arctic as the major culprit are (not surprisingly) less impressed.

"I think it proposes a new mechanism, but there is still a long way to prove the argument," said Qiuhong Tang, climatologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Bejing. "I can hardly find any observation-based evidence in the essay which can support the argument."

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Others, like Katharine Hayhoe, of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, fall somewhere in the middle: "the two ideas are not necessarily competitors. They may be complementary."

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