Meandering Arctic Oscillation: Colder mid-January

Much of the unusual warmth showing up over North America can be tied to the strongest El Nino since 1998; the equivalent of baking garlic into your apple pie. It flavors everything.

Record heat and El Nino-strengthened winds triggered the deadliest December for tornadoes in U.S. history; a warmer, wetter atmosphere spawning flooding on the Mississippi River not seen since 1993.

Another factor meteorologists track is the AO, the Arctic Oscillation, a measure of the intensity and configuration of the polar vortex swirling above the arctic. Unusually low pressure has kept bitter air bottled up at northern latitudes, but the pattern is shifting; warmer high pressure over the North Pole is about to shove this cold dome southward.

ECMWF guidance pulls a shot of subzero air into Minnesota one week from Monday; the first real Siberian jolt of the winter season. A little snow may fall next Friday but no forbidding storms are brewing. We nudge 30F today, maybe 3 or 4 days near freezing next week before the freezer door swings wide open.

It wouldn't be winter without a subzero smack!

* 250 mb jet stream winds valid 03z, January 8, courtesy of Climate Reanalyzer.

Change in the Weather? The Arctic Oscillation has been positive much of autumn 2015, meaning a tight polar vortex with few southern intrusions of bitter air, but NOAA models suggest a shift to a negative phase is underway, which means a good chance of a few (polar) outbreaks within 1-2 weeks. That said, the volume, intensity and duration of polar air this winter probably won't be as severe as recent winters as a warm El Nino signal continues to overwhelm the pattern across North America.

In Search of Bitter Air. We'll see a couple of (real) cold frontal passages in mid-January, but truly frigid air is in short supply across the Northern Hemisphere for the next few weeks. We're closing in on the point where "average" feels like a cold front. It's the rough equivalent of opening up the cold water spigot and only a trickle comes out.

Above Average Into Next Week. European model guidance shows temperatures averaging about 10F. above average, nighttime lows some 15-20F warmer than normal into Saturday of next week, followed by a sharp cold frontal passage a week from tomorrow. A little snow or a light mix is possible Thursday and Friday.

Couple of Cold Swipes. Although no sustained polar air is brewing, at least not yet, the forecast for January 15 at 500 mb (GFS model) suggests colder than average weather for the northern tier states with a few nights below zero mid-month. Hardly surprising or unusual, considering the coldest weather of the entire year usually takes place in mid-January.

Mild Signal Lingers Into February? Here is NOAA's CFS climate model guidance for the month of February, showing temperatures 3-5F warmer than average across Minnesota next month, even warmer across much of Canada. Source: WeatherBell.

Why We'll Keep Having Weird Weather in 2016. Additional warmth is loading the dice, spiking the punch in favor of more extreme events. They would have happened anyway, but a warmer climate is "juicing" the atmosphere, making droughts and floods deeper, longer and stronger. Here's an excerpt from TIME: "...In recent years, a weak Arctic Oscillation has allowed cold air to escape the Arctic, leading to a chilly winter in the Northeast U.S. But the Oscillation appears to be holding strong, according to NOAA data, lessening the chance of a chilly winter. Climate phenomena like El Niño are not new occurrences, but scientists say that global warming has contributed to making them larger and more damaging. NOAA’s Deke Ardnt likens climate change to a flight of stairs. “Over time you get higher and higher,” Ardnt told The Guardian. “El Niño is like standing on your tippy toes when you’re on one of those stairs. Both of those together work to create the warmest temperature on record...”

Total Precipitable Water animation above courtesy of NOAA NESDIS.

2015 Recap. According to NOAA data 2015 was 2.3F warmer than average and about 5.5" of precipitation wetter than normal in the Twin Cities and the St. Cloud area. Place your bets for 2016.

December: Warmest, Second-Wettest Ever Recorded for Minnesota. Here's an excerpt from Dr. Mark Seeley's latest installment of Minnesota WeatherTalk: "For the 4th consecutive month Minnesota recorded warmer than normal temperatures. Observers reported mean monthly temperatures for December that were from 8 to 12 degrees F above normal, marking the warmest December in history on a statewide basis, surpassing the previous record from December 1939.  Extremes for the month ranged from 53F at Marshall on the 9th to -11F at Thief River Falls on the 28th. On a statewide basis December of 2015 was the 2nd wettest in history, with an average value of nearly 1.90 inches.  Some observers reported their wettest December in history, including: 4.09" at Two Harbors; 4.90" at Caledonia; 5.38" at La Crescent; 4.28" at Preston; and 4.00 inches at Spring Grove..."

Two Charts Show December's Crazy Warmth. Climate Central takes a look at historic warmth in December: "...The month is likely to be the hottest December on record for most, if not all, states to the east of the Mississippi, capping off a year that is virtually a lock to be the world’s hottest on record. As the first chart, from the Weather Channel, shows, there were about 10,000 combined daily record highs and record warm lows compared to just around 500 record cold highs and lows this month — a ratio of about 21-1. The higher ratio of record highs to lows is a hallmark of global warming, which skews the odds in favor of the former. Without warming, the ratio would be about 1-to-1, at least on the scale of years or decades. But over the past two decades, those figures have tilted 2-to-1 in favor of record heat..."

El Nino: Why Predictable Climate Event Still Has The Scientists Guessing. Every El Nino is different, it turns out, and this one already rivals 1997-98. Here's an excerpt from The Guardian: "...The last great El Niño, in 1997-98, helped make 1998 the then warmest year on record – that too was accompanied by a series of devastating events around the world, among them ice storms in North America, floods on the west coasts of the Americas and forest fires in Borneo. It also delayed the monsoon rains in India, warmed tropical waters so severely that coral reefs started to “bleach” and die, and signalled a record-breaking season of typhoons and tropical cyclones in the eastern Pacific. Although researchers are fairly sure that climate change as a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels, and the release of greenhouse gases, could make El Niño more frequent, or more devastating, or both, it remains a natural, cyclic event..."

Graphic credit above: "False-color images provided by Nasa compare Pacific Ocean water temperatures from the El Niño in 1997 (right) and the current El Niño." Photograph: AP.

Record Warmth in December. It was the warmest December ever recorded for Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, according to AccuWeather.

Washington D.C. Eclipses Warmest December on Record by Enormous Margin. Here's an excerpt of a timely explainer from Capital Weather Gang that delves into some of the reasons (beyond El Nino), including the AO and NAO: "...A combination of the strongest El Niño on record (by some measures) and a few other factors drove the super-warm pattern over eastern North America. The prevailing jet stream featured an incredible, warm ridge of high pressure over the entire eastern half of the continent — a complete reversal from last year’s winter pattern.All of these large-scale patterns worked together to create impressive warmth in the Eastern United States.

+WPO Positive Western Pacific Oscillation (warm Eastern U.S. signal)

+EPO Positive Eastern Pacific Oscillation (warm Eastern U.S. signal)

-PNA Negative Pacific-North American (warm Eastern U.S. signal)

+AO Positive Arctic Oscillation (normally a warm Eastern U.S. signal)

+NAO Positive North Atlantic Oscillation (normally a warm Eastern U.S. signal)

The resulting surface temperature anomaly was astonishing..."

Flood-Ravaged St. Louis Begins Cleanup as Floods Break and Threaten Levees Elsewhere. The Mississippi River is out of it's banks, in some cases exceeding levels last reached in 1993. Here's an excerpt from The Portland Press Herald: "The worst of the dangerous, deadly winter flood is over in the St. Louis area, leaving residents of several water-logged communities to spend the first day of 2016 assessing damage, cleaning up and figuring out how to bounce back – or in some cases, where to live. Farther south, things were getting worse: Record and near-record crest predictions of the Mississippi River and levee breaks threatened homes in rural southern Missouri and Illinois. Two more levees succumbed Friday, bringing to at least 11 the number of levee failures..." (Latest flood crest forecast available from NOAA).

In Midwest, 1,000 Flood-Fighters Work To Hold Back New Year's Floods. has an update on Mississippi River flooding now rivaling 1993's epic flood. Here's an excerpt: "With the Mississippi River and four other major US rivers building toward historic crests for a winter flood, some 1,000 US flood fighters have spread out across America's mighty river valleys to once again test the wherewithal of the world's grandest plumbing works: the Mississippi River and Tributaries project. El Niño conditions in the Pacific have created an unusually wet and warm mess across the nation's midsection and into the Deep South. The gauge at St. Louis is clawing up toward 42 feet, its third-highest in recorded history. Parts of St. Louis are already underwater as the confluence of the Missouri River and the Mississippi roil the city's shipping front and close the St. Louis harbor. The waters are expected to crest in Missouri on New Year’s Day..."

Photo credit above: "Homes are surrounded by floodwater in Pacific, Mo., Wednesday. A rare winter flood threatened nearly two dozen federal levees in Missouri and Illinois on Wednesday as rivers rose, prompting evacuations in several places." Jeff Roberson/AP.

CNN has more details on the potentially historic flooding around St. Louis here.

More April than December. Check out the precipitation anomaly map for December 1-29, showing 4 times more rain than average across a huge swath of territory from Wisconsin into central Iowa and eastern Nebraska; another soggy bulls-eye from Tulsa to St. Louis. It's unusual to see such a large area over the USA east of the Rockies so wet in December; a function of El Nino and a warmer atmosphere able to hold more water vapor. Source: PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University.

El Nino's Silver Lining. The firehose of moisture from El Nino has been trained on the Pacific Northwest, but there are signs the storm track will shift southward in the coming weeks, putting California in the potential cross-hairs of flooding rains and mudslides. December precipitation (rain and snow) was higher than average across most of the state, still in the grips of extreme drought.

Pick of the Week: Massive Tornadoes Roar Across Texas. Typical for April, a bit unusual for late December, according to The Capital Weather Gang: "... The storms left 11 people dead, and incredible destruction in their wake. It was the second day of destructive tornadoes in less than a week, following an outbreak on Dec. 23 that killed 10 people. Just like that, in the span of four days, 2015 went from having a record low number of tornado fatalities to tripling the annual count. In fact, between the two tornado events, the month brought more tornado deaths than all the other months of the year combined, making it the deadliest December on record..."

Image credit above: "Lightning illuminates a violent tornado as it roars across the landscape between Garland and Rowlett, Texas, on Dec. 26." (Nathan Moore/Stormviewlive)

Video: Man Records Tornado's Approach, Aftermath. KLTV in Tyler Texas has a link to some remarkable footage taken as a massive tornado tore through the east suburbs of Dallas; here's an excerpt: "A series of heartbreaking videos from a man who recorded a tornado in the Dallas-area is gaining shares on Facebook. The videos were posted by Randy Pritchard. Recording from what appears to be a cellphone, Pritchard captured video of the tornado as it made its way across a lake and toward the neighborhood. He was standing outside with friends when the storm struck and caught images of lightning strikes and the massive funnel cloud. The group rushes to the neighbor’s house as the storm nears and gathers in his shelter..." (Rated PG for rough language).

With Taps on the Wrist, Apple Watch Points to the Future. Just another gadget, or something more profound? This tech writer at The New York Times is pretty sold; here's an excerpt: "...And yet, after almost eight months, the Apple Watch feels like the future to me. More than anything else, the watch has changed the way I communicate via email and text messages. Using Apple’s VIP feature, I direct all of the most important messages to my watch, which alerts me with a subtle tap on my wrist or a soft ding. I ignore most after a quick glance. (Sorry, Mom.) Many get a quick “O.K.” or “Sounds good.” I pull out my phone only for the ones I need to respond to at length. The same is true for phone calls, which appear on my watch while my phone remains tucked away in my pocket, or still at my desk on the other side of the office. It’s like Caller ID for my wrist..."

How New Year's Eve Came to Times Square. Atlas Obscura has an interesting story about the origins of the tradition; here's the intro: "On New Year’s Eve in 1903, there was no countdown to midnight, no ball drop, and no partygoers wearing silly hats in Times Square. In fact, there was no “Times Square.” But all that changed the following year, when the newspaper publisher Adolph Ochs moved the headquarters of the New York Times from Park Row to West 42nd Street and celebrated with a bash that launched an iconic New Year tradition..."

Photo credit above: "One Times Square under construction in 1903." (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons).

30 F. high temperature at KMSP Friday.

24 F. average high on January 1.

30 F. high on January 1, 2015.

January 2, 1941: Grand Portage gets over 4.5 inches of precipitation in 24 hours. That's roughly how much normally falls there during the 'winter' months from November to February.

TODAY: Partly sunny, milder. Winds: W 10-15. High: near 30

SATURDAY NIGHT: Partly cloudy. Low: 15

SUNDAY: Blue sky, seasonably chilly. Winds: NW 8-13. High: 25

MONDAY: Cold start, bright sunshine. Wake-up: 9. High: 24

TUESDAY: Partly sunny, turning windy. Wake-up: 11. High: 29

WEDNESDAY: More clouds, trending milder. Wake-up: 18. High: 31

THURSDAY: Cloudy, few flurries possible. Wake-up: 27. High: 30

FRIDAY: Period of light snow. Wake-up: 28. High: 32

Climate Stories...

Climate Change is Showing up in Blockbusters and Binge Watches. So What? Grist has the article; here's the intro: "At one point midway through the first episode, the camera pans past the skyline of New York. It’s both familiar and uncanny: There’s One World Trade Center, standing in a thicket of shinier, spindlier towers that announce we are now in The Future. And standing sentinel outside the city is the Statue of Liberty — except now she is ringed by a reinforced seawall, set in ten feet of angry surf. That’s it. That’s all the reference to climate change we get in the 45 minute-long pilot of The Expanse, SyFy’s new space drama. In fact, only a handful of those minutes are spent on Earth at all..."

“...What is most unfortunate,” said Farrell, the Yale sociologist, “is that polarization around climate change was manufactured by those whose financial and political interests were most threatened.” Even today, he added, that polarization has crippled any hopes for bipartisan policy solutions.... "

- from the latest installment of an ongoing series at The Los Angeles Times.

Climate Chaos, Across the Map. Justin Gillis at The New York Times tries to connect the dots between weather volatility,  ENSO (El Nino) and larger planetary trends. As always, trying to prove cause and effect with the atmosphere is problematic, but are we inadvertently loading the dice in favor of more extremes, especially with rainfall and heat? Here's an excerpt: "...In both the Atlantic and Pacific, the unusually warm ocean surface is throwing extra moisture into the air, said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Storms over land can draw moisture from as far as 2,000 miles away, he said, so the warm ocean is likely influencing such events as the heavy rain in the Southeast, as well as the record number of strong hurricanes and typhoons that occurred this year in the Pacific basin, with devastating consequences for island nations like Vanuatu. “The warmth means there is more fuel for these weather systems to feed upon,” Dr. Trenberth said. “This is the sort of thing we will see more as we go decades into the future.”

Photo montage credit, left to right: Missouri flooding: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson; Dallas area tornado: G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News via AP; Scotland flooding: Danny Lawson/PA via AP.

Big Oil Braced for Global Warming While It Fought Regulations. Because a little organized, manufactured misinformation can be good for the bottom line, at least in the short-term. But truth usually catches up with you, and now the question is what the fossil fuel industry knew, when they knew it, and how they communicated inherent climate risk to the general public vs. internal, strategic purposes. The Los Angeles Times continues their reporting; here's a snippet of the most recent article: "A few weeks before seminal climate change talks in Kyoto back in 1997, Mobil Oil took out a bluntly worded advertisement in the New York Times and Washington Post. “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” the ad said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” One year earlier, though, engineers at Mobil Oil were concerned enough about climate change to design and build a collection of exploration and production facilities along the Nova Scotia coast that made structural allowances for rising temperatures and sea levels..."

Buss: GOP Should Rethink Climate Change. Here's an excerpt of an Op-Ed at The Detroit News: "...Meantime, unless Republicans find a way to talk about climate change that doesn’t make them sound out of touch, GOP presidential candidates will continue to struggle to relate to the average voter on this issue. Almost every poll shows younger voters believe some degree of climate change is taking place, and that human activity significantly contributes to its severity. A majority of all Americans believe that as well. That means it’s an issue the Republican Party must get a handle on, particularly if it wants to be the party of the future. Conservative candidates don’t lead the conversation on climate change, largely because they don’t believe there’s anything to discuss. Instead, progressives and their Democratic candidates control the conversation and make everyone else out to sound medieval..."

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