Extreme Arctic Warming Linked to Extreme Cold and Snow in New England

Mar 19, 2018

Cape Cod after the March 13th blizzard.
Credit L. Lerner

Southern New England has been battered by three major winter storms in as many weeks. Severe coastal flooding and widespread power outages have prompted many to ask if it's a new normal brought on by climate change. A growing body of research suggests it may be, and extreme warming in the Arctic may be responsible.


(Interview with Judah Cohen and Jennifer Francis begins at 2:07.)  

Winter in New England began with bitter cold and a record-setting storm in early January, then turned relatively mild. But March has come in like a lion, plunging the region back into what feels like the depths of winter. It’s largely what Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Lexington-based Atmospheric and Environmental Research, predicted based on conditions in the Arctic last fall.


“The headline was watch out for a roller-coaster winter that would be whipsawing from extremes,” said Cohen. “But I have to admit that February was a much warmer month than I had anticipated.”


The link between the Arctic and New England winters is somewhat counterintuitive and has been controversial. Unusually warm conditions in the Arctic correlate with colder, snowier weather in the northeast. But there’s been some question as to whether Arctic warmth causes those severe winters.


Now, a new study (published the day the most recent storm hit) adds to the evidence and helps shed light on the nature of the connection – finding that extreme warmth in the Arctic often precedes New England cold by about five days, and that warming that extends high into the atmosphere has the strongest effect. They also found that the connection is strongest in mid-to-late-winter.


Senior author Jennifer Frances, of Rutgers University, is hesitant to declare March the new January but says that Mother Nature “has been giving us quite a few examples” this year of how climate change may play out.