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Is the Arctic Really Drunk, or Does It Just Act like This Sometimes?

For Related Articles and More Information, Please Visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center Page.

Just when weather weary Americans thought they'd found a reprieve, the latest forecasts suggest that the polar vortex will, again, descend into the heart of the country next week, bringing with it staggering cold. If so, it will be just the latest weather extreme in a winter that has seen so many of them. California has been extremely dry, while the flood-soaked UK has been extremely wet. Alaska has been extremely hot (as has Sochi), while the snow-pummeled US East Coast has been extremely cold. They're all different, and yet on a deeper level, perhaps, they're all the same.

This weather now serves as the backdrop-and perhaps, as the inspiration-for an increasingly epic debate within the field of climate research. You see, one climate researcher, Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, has advanced an influential theory suggesting that winters like this one may be growing more likely to occur. The hypothesis is that by rapidly melting the Arctic, global warming is slowing down the fast-moving river of air far above us known as the jet stream-in turn causing weather patterns to get stuck in place for longer, and leading to more extremes of the sort that we've all been experiencing. "There is a lot of pretty tantalizing evidence that our hypothesis seems to be bearing some fruit," Francis explained on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast. The current winter is a "perfect example" of the kind of jet stream pattern that her research predicts, Francis added (although she emphasized that no one atmospheric event can be directly blamed on climate change).   

Francis's idea has gained rapid celebrity, no doubt because it seems to make sense of our mind-boggling weather. After all, it isn't often that an idea first published less than two years is strongly embraced by the president's science adviser in a widely watched YouTube video. And yet in a letter to the journal Science last week, five leading climate scientists-mainstream researchers who accept a number of other ideas about how global warming is changing the weather, from worsening heat waves to driving heavier rainfall-strongly contested Francis's jet stream claim, calling it "interesting" but contending that "alternative observational analyses and simulations have not confirmed the hypothesis." One of the authors was the highly influential climate researcher Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who also appeared on Inquiring Minds this week alongside Francis to debate the matter. 


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