Hot Arctic and a Chill in the Northeast: What’s Behind the Gloomy Spring Weather?

, senior climate scientist | May 17, 2019, 10:21 am EDT
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When temperatures hit the 80s Fahrenheit in May above latitude 40, sun-seekers hit the parks, lakes, and beaches, and thoughts turn to summer. By contrast, when temperatures lurk in the drizzly 40s and 50s well into flower season, northerners get impatient for summer. But when those 80-degree temperatures visit latitude 64 in Russia, as they just did, and when sleet disrupts Mother’s Day weekend in May in Massachusetts, as it just did, thoughts turn to: what is going on here?

Hot arctic

Before we jump into the science, let’s take a quick look at the unusual spring weather. This past weekend, Russia was the scene of record-high temperatures. A city above the Arctic circle—Arkhangelsk—recorded a high of 84 degrees Fahrenheit on May 11 at the Talagi Airport weather station. The average high temperature for Arkhangelsk this time of year is around 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gloomy weather

Meanwhile in the Northeast US, try having a conversation that doesn’t loop back to the endlessly gloomy, chilly, unseasonable weather. When gloomy weather becomes such a dominant topic of conversation in a region, a form of citizen science is occurring, and it tells you something: it is unusual, it is anomalous, it is downright wacky.

Many locations are not seeing the sun nearly as much as normal memory serves—and science confirms—for this time of year.  The Long Island town of Islip, New York, recorded its longest streak of rainy days on record from April 20 to May 7. It rained for 21 days this April in Boston.

It’s not just in the Northeast: repeated rain events resulted in much of the contiguous US being ranked in the 99th percentile for soil moisture on May 14, including many of the Plain states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) and most states eastward. This is a continuation of a high soil moisture ranking percentile pattern (see Jan – April 2019 in Figure 1). Soil moisture ranking percentile is from the 1948-2000 Climatology

As of this writing, there are headlines with exasperated tones wondering when winter will truly depart, including:

In that third article, Jason Samenow describes the abnormal late May forecast for snow, hail, tornadoes, flooding, and excessive heat to different parts of the contiguous US over upcoming days.

US Monthly Soil Moisture ranking percentile

Figure 1. Continental US Monthly Soil Moisture ranking percentile for Jan-April 2019. Repeated rain events resulted in a large portion of the contiguous US being ranked in the 99th percentile for soil moisture on May 14. Source: CPC NCEP NOAA


Unfortunately, the consequences of these gloomy, chilly, and rainy or snowy conditions are very real in terms of damages, both personal and in the larger economy. People are taking time away from work—lost labor hours—to deal with them. People are pumping water out of basements and throwing away cherished items lost to water damage.

Some of the flooding is from intense storms like the two rare interior US bomb cyclones that caused flooding and prompted governors to spring into action, calling on the National Guard. There is a current backlog of unmet disaster relief requests. Some of the flooding is from water tables rising since relentless repeated rain events don’t allow the soil enough time to dry out.

The natural and human-driven aspects of flooding are critical to tease apart so we can better prepare our communities for the flood risk of today and the changing flood risks of the decades ahead. This is especially important when investing dollars in infrastructure that are anywhere near surface water or groundwater (also known as the water table).

Eurasian October snow cover extent indicator

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the story of the strange weather unfolding this spring in the US is related in part to snow last October in Eurasia. This indicator—the Eurasian October snow cover extent indicator—is proving to be worthy of additional attention by US weather geeks. The good news is that the scientists who were paying attention to the Eurasia snow extent behavior during October, along with a host of other indicators, gave advanced warning of the emerging US winter and spring weather pattern for 2018/2019. Winter sports enthusiasts rejoiced and sought the snow-peaked slopes of Colorado and Utah.

The bad news is it can feel extremely bouncy going through record-breaking cold and record flooding, with temporary relief periods over these past months. It can feel like riding a seesaw. But the lasting memory of the major pattern is what becomes the talk of the region. Terrific winter snowpack, tragic flooding, and gloomy northeast.

You may wonder about the Eurasian snow extent indicator and the broader connections. I encourage those who want to know, to spend some time clicking on the links here or links in earlier blogs that point to even more information (see here, here, here, and here). These describe the details regarding how Arctic sea ice decline, particularly in the Barents-Kara sea ice, north of Scandinavia and Russia, contributes to ocean and atmosphere behavior. Which contributes to Eurasian snow cover extent behavior. And ultimately a wavy jet stream with episodic cold outbreaks over winter and spring in the Northern Hemisphere, including the US.

Here is an example of the science as Judah Cohen explains, “There is a growing consensus that it is Barents-Kara sea ice in the late fall and early winter that has the greatest impact across Eurasia.  Therefore, low Barents-Kara sea ice in November for example, favors a strengthened Siberian high, increased poleward heat flux, a weak stratospheric Polar Vortex and finally a negative Arctic Oscillation. An important point regarding the Siberian high is that it strengthens or expands northwest of the climatological center.  For low snow cover and/or high sea ice the opposite occurs.”  Translation, a weakened polar vortex means more cold outbreaks deep into US territory like this past winter and spring.

We know that burning coal, oil, and gas and the resulting global warming has caused dramatic declines in Arctic summer sea ice extent (minimum occurs in September). It takes longer to cool the warmer than normal Arctic ocean enough to grow new sea ice or thicken remnant ice in the following October and November. Over each successive decade, we are more likely to experience low Barents-Kara sea ice extent over more years, causing weather geeks to keep monitoring jargon indicators: Sea ice extent, Eurasian Snow Cover Extent, Stratospheric Polar Vortex, El Niño Southern Oscillation, North Atlantic Oscillation, Arctic Oscillation, and more to improve US seasonal outlooks.

This is little consolation to those throwing out their flood-soaked cherished items from Kansas to Maine this spring season.


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  • your writing is to be applauded for its intent, the fact that you, and most anyone else I read about these issues, leave out what I surmise are the real major causes of damage to the earth, affecting weather, ruining ecosystems, poisoning water supplies, and sickening and killing people, is woefully incomplete.

  • IamA Pragmatist

    “We know that burning coal, oil, and gas and the resulting global warming
    has caused dramatic declines in Arctic summer sea ice extent…”

    Yet no mention of the military’s damage to the environment? I dug deeply into what has caused the most damage to the ozone, and found reports that estimate the shuttle program alone destroyed upwards of 25% of the planet’s ozone. If you watch shuttles (when they were used) and rockets taking off, the resulting horribly caustic plumes of chemicals have to be the equivalent to hundreds of cars, maybe millions, running all day at the same time for years. Similarly, watch military missiles being launched, or understand that the big military ships burn 1000 gallons of caustic fuel every hour. How may thousands of these ships are there running at one time? How much damage did all the nuclear bombs tested cause to the earth? Inconceivable, irreparable damage. How many military planes fly every day around the planet, or drones, or jeeps run, tanks move, et al?

    Though your writing is to be applauded for its intent, the fact that you, and most anyone else I read about these issues, leave out what I surmise are the real major causes of damage to the earth, affecting weather, ruining ecosystems, poisoning water supplies, and sickening and killing people, is woefully incomplete. The causations of the planet’s ills are far more complex and numerous than we can try to imagine and enumerate. Adding more substance to make your point would go a long way in interesting readers who have tired of the same old rhetoric. We little people didn’t do this alone.

    The powers that be are the true culprits.

  • butch koch

    Still another article that fails to address the geo-engineering taking place and its obvious impact on natural hydrological cycles. Amazing how so many deny what they can see with their own eyes, and that academia is so silent. Weather modification been going on for decades, spraying takes place regularly, yet, its not a factor? What a joke.

    • IamA Pragmatist

      Precisely. And mentioning the personal human toll in the northeast without mentioning the resulting death, depression and other immune system damage from a deficiency of vitamin D is a shame. Geoengineering is ushering in Agenda 21 and few will accept or talk about this. Some won’t talk about it because they will be murdered, and others won’t because their bread and butter depends on keeping their cretinist mouths shut. Geoengineering is one of the most archaic of the technologies, easy to implement and with maybe the most militaristic potential out of all military options, and yet we’re to believe geoengineering either can’t be achieved (silly), or the US military wouldn’t already have developed this cataclysmically offensive weapon (ignorance). What is sickeningly obvious out of all of this is how affected people are from their normalcy biases and cognitive dissonance. Yes, everyone, there are psychopaths still out there who have these technologies, are hateful of us and use these technologies against us, and are working toward even more vicious assaults against us. This is a game to them, and every day they lay waste to some other area, killing people and destroying infrastructure, as well as economies. They love destroying things, killing people, and control, and putting it out right in front of our eyes. To think these people don’t exist is abysmally shortsighted, if one even has the intelligence to entertain the likelihood of such opportunity available to someone in this day and age of cloning, nanotechnology (picotechnology and smaller at this point), computer prowess, the wealth required to exact such damage on us as well as threatening us to keep our mouths shut. As we age, we should come to the understanding that there are few coincidences in life. It is no coincidence that all over the planet we see white lines appear in the sky, followed by a whiteout, followed by massive, unexplainable and unpredicted changes in weather patterns, and radar captures of rf in the areas of such anomalies, If it looks like a chemtrail, and it quacks like a chemtrail, it’s a chemtrail. Many uses exist for geoengineering, and depopulation is one of them. Awesome outline of how these geoengineering programs came about and how they are slowly killing us off. Watch the podcast…

  • Andrew McLaren

    Very informative post, but a minor correction: Arkhangel’sk is actually a few degrees south of, not above the Arctic Circle (although the latitude there is otherwise correctly noted at 64 °N, above).