Tom Skilling explains our bitter winter

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This winter’s relentless cold and frequent snows have many people wondering: What in the world is happening?  Tonight we get into some of the global forces driving our crazy winter.

January 6th; Chicago’s coldest temperature of the winter.  Minus 16 with driving winds and sub zero wind chills.  Chicago is in the midst of it’s tenth coldest winter on record, and it’s fifth snowiest.  We’ve had more snow than in any winter over the last three decades.

In fact, the last time were this snowy was 1978-79, the year of the infamous Jane Byrne, Michael Bilandic blizzard.  But, we’re not alone with unusual winter weather.  While we’re shivering, the Hawaiian islands, in just the past week, have been pounded by some of the biggest waves they’ve seen in a decade, some 50 feet or five stories high.

And our friends in Alaska have been treated to warmer temperatures than Chicago, the warmest January temperatures ever observed, 62 degrees in some cases. That, plus repetitive waves of heavy rain there, have triggered record avalanches, including this one outside of Valdez, which officials are calling the biggest they’ve ever seen. Why are they so warm and we’re so cold?

The quick answer is, it’s the jet stream, that high altitude river of wind which guides weather systems across the continent. These jet stream patterns don’t just flow from West to East, they develop big waves.  And where those waves set up, those buckles in the jet stream winds can very much influence the character of a winter.  Because of their importance, we spend a lot of time looking at the jet streams.

And here’s what we’ve seen this winter that’s been unusual.  The jet stream has tended to move all the way north to Alaska up to the North pole, then dive southward into the lower 48 carrying mass after mass of arctic air into the country. A big part of this winter story seems to be ocean temperatures out here in the Pacific. This area of orange and red is a region that’s warmer than normal. Here’s a blowup of that area, California, Western Canada.  Look at that area of ocean, that’s up to six degrees warmer than normal.  The jet stream buckles around that because the air over it is warm.

The weather’s been off kilter across the entire country.  Look at what’s been happening in the past week in the normally warm southeast.  They’ve had ice and snow, and horrific traffic issues.  What’s been so striking aobut this winter is how widespread the unusual weather has been. This is a map of temperatures so far this month.  The blue and green areas are the areas that have been cold, and we sit right in the middle of the coldest air.

Well, haven’t we suffered enough?  The fact is, this pattern may not be one that’s going to go away quickly.  This forecast from a European model shows the colder than normal weather persisting in the next month overall.  And here’s our National Weather Service model showing the same thing.  This blue and green area is colder than normal… so winter is not over yet!

Computer models show the cold pattern could continue here into March.  But, they also say the spring and summer could be a bit warmer than normal. One reason it feels so barbaric this year is because last winter was the warmest on record for the United States.

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Ted Parra contributed to this report.  Special thanks to NASA and the Alaska Department of Transportation for video assistance.

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  • Stephen Inghram

    Fascinating Tom. Thank you. Are there any studies pertaining to the radioactive waste dumped into the ocean from the earthquake in Japan that could possibly be affecting the temperature of the Pacific Ocean? Or more recently, the toxic air pollution from China?

    • Brian

      You don't need to research that. Basic physics equations of the mass of the waste — much of which has nothing to do with increasing temperatures — within the insanely massive volume of water in the Pacific, with noted currents, dispersion,gravity, density, and such would easily account for that — and it would be incredibly minimal, if even noticeable. Hence, you never hear it mentioned. It's affect on marine life and other issues? Now that is a problem….but warming an entire massive ocean enough to affect the entire atmosphere, as well as cause a block in the Atlantic which is forcing our cold air to stay in place rather than move eastward? No…that's not happening.

  • Brian

    It's widely known that observationally the jet stream is doing what it is doing, but why is it doing what it is doing? To say the jet stream is doing such and such is no different than explaining it is cold here and warm west, in the ridge. In fact, the jet stream is not the *cause* of cold/warm air divisions, but the result of differential air masses. So, my question is .. WHY is the air masses locked in the way they have been? That is the question! Observing a locked in jet is not the answer to why the air masses are locked in — they are one in the same. I realize Tom is not an atmospheric scientist (he got a minor in meteorology, not a major..thus avoided the physics, atmospheric dynamics, and calculus), but I assume Tom has connections to true meteorologists that can answer that?

  • General Zod

    How does one get to write and post articles for a well-known media source when one has no concept of the difference between “it’s/its” and can’t be arsed to use spell check? Come on. You are supposed to be professionals. Please provide a “news” product that reflects your status as such.

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