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Global warming

It’s not the weather, it’s the climate

This winter’s crazy weather is acting the way scientists expect. What they don’t know is how it will affect the climate

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Photo (above): Rivers form on Greenland’s ice cap during the summer melt season (Nasa)

Cumulative change in the mass of the Greenland ice sheet since September 1. Click to enlarge. (Image: Polar Portal)

Visit Polar Portal to view an animation of the mass has changed on a weekly basis this winter.

Below, a Nasa animation showing how much mass Greenland's ice cap lost between January 2004 and June 2014

With the most recent blast of exceptionally warm air into the Arctic at the end of last week, marking the third time this winter temperatures at the North Pole have approached the freezing point, scientists are increasingly seeking to understand what this will mean for the development of sea ice this winter and, then, what that might mean for the way the Arctic Ocean will behave this summer.

“The big concern this year is that changes in the Arctic are extending into the winter months,” Jeremy Mathis, the director of Arctic research for Noaa, a US science agency, told us earlier this week. “This means that the system isn’t getting the full reset that it normally gets even after the warm summers we've seen in the past.”

The warm air is also having an effect on the weather over land. Svalbard, for example, recorded the warmest temperature in all of Norway on February 7. The temperature, 4.1°C, was far from the highest ever recorded in Svalbard in February (7°C, in 2012). Temperatures rose further (to 5°C) as a high-pressure system situated over Finland pulled warm air over the territory, before falling back to normal, but the sudden warm wave comes after a 2016 that set records for both temperature and precipitation – although most of this fell as rain, rather than snow.

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In Greenland, the warm air is also affecting the amount of snow falling, thoguh in some areas, it has meant more, not less, accumulation. (See map at right.)

According to Ruth Mottram, climatologist with DMI, the Danish met office, since October, Greenland has seen a succession of major storms. These storms have dropped a lot more snow than average, particularly on the eastern coast and in the south.

“Warm air can hold more water vapour than cold air,” she wrote on Polar Portal, a climate website. “Projections from climate models suggest that as the atmosphere warms, there will also be increased snowfall over Greenland.”

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The October storms pushed snowfall accumulations on the ice sheet far above what is normal for the time of year. Since December, however, the amount of snow falling over the ice sheet has followed a more normal pattern.

North-western Greenland, on the other hand, has has less snowfall than usual to date. This, according to Ms Mottram, is because North Atlantic storms have been driving up the eastern coast, but north-western Greenland has been relatively dry compared to the average.

Warm air also means more melting, though, and the question for scientists is whether one will balance the other out.

Regardless of whether the ice cap gains or loses mass this winter, she says it is more important to look at the development over an entire year or even longer, in order to get a true picture of what is happening.

SEE RELATED: Yes, Virginia, there is a human cause for the Arctic’s freakishly warm winter

As curious as this winter’s weather has been, she explains that, for scientists, the melting season – June, July and August – remain the most important.

“It is therefore still far too early to suggest that the Greenland ice sheet will not lose more mass than it gains this year.”

Unfortunately, according to Ms Mottram, all projections for the future suggest that melt and runoff will dominate, leading to retreat of the ice sheet and sea level rise.