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There is an extremely unusual December day at the North Pole, with temperatures getting very close to the melting point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0 degrees Celsius.
For perspective, the temperature at the North Pole is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit above average for the date.
Data from a buoy located about 80 miles south of the dark, windswept pole hit 32 degrees on Thursday morning as storm systems dragged unusually mild air into the high Arctic. Aiding the warm spell is the fact that these winds passed over Arctic waters that would normally be covered with sea ice but are open ocean this year after a severe sea ice melt season and record-slow winter freeze-up. The bizarre Arctic heat wave, which will be brief, lasting only two days, is similar to another warmup that occurred in December 2015, and there is scientific evidence showing that these extreme events are becoming more frequent and extreme in the Arctic as sea ice melts and air temperatures increase.
However, the mean temperatures in the Arctic this fall into early winter, including the spike this week, have no precedent in the records kept since 1958 by the Danish Meteorological Institute. Though sharp oscillations in temperature have happened throughout the record, the mean temperatures are much higher this year. It’s as if the Arctic has shifted into a new, higher gear of climate change.
The roots of this week’s event can be traced to multiple storm systems curling northwest out of the Atlantic side of the Arctic, passing to the northeast of Greenland. These cyclones set up a southeasterly airflow that moved moist and relatively mild (mild for the Arctic anyway) air across the Barents Sea. An analysis published by scientists affiliated with the research and journalism group Climate Central found that the record warm November and December in the Arctic would have been extremely unlikely in a world without human-caused global warming.
A separate study, published this year in the Journal of Climate this year, found that there is an increase in the number of these events, known as moist intrusions, crossing 70 degrees north Latitude in December and January. The research found that the number of these events during December and January has nearly doubled since 1990, but it did not explain why this is the case.
These events are not without significant consequences, since when they affect land they can cause rain to fall on top of snow and ice cover, forming a crust that prevents animals like reindeer from accessing their food supplies below.