Assessing the Impact of Declining Arctic Sea Ice on Extreme Weather

December 10, 2018

by 

Yutian Wu, an atmospheric scientist and Lamont Associate Research Professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, studies the general circulation of the atmosphere, including jet streams, storm tracks, and monsoon circulation, using observations and numerical model simulations.

Wu received funding from the Center for Climate and Life to investigate whether the ongoing, rapid decline of sea ice cover in the Arctic—a region warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe—promotes cold spells, heat waves, and other types of extreme weather over North America. The results of Wu’s research will help resolve some of the uncertainty around the relationship between sea ice and the atmosphere, and enable scientists to make better predictions of seasonal weather patterns and extreme events.

Q. What is the climate problem you’re trying to solve?

A. My research aims to understand the impact of Arctic sea ice loss and Arctic warming on North American weather extremes. As a consequence of anthropogenic climate change, the Earth’s surface has warmed up. The place where the Earth’s surface has warmed up the most is the Arctic. Some recent studies argue that Arctic sea ice loss and warming are responsible for the recent increased frequency of extreme weather events in the mid-latitude regions, including cold spells and heat waves, but other studies disagree with that. So I am aiming to address whether and how Arctic sea ice loss affects the mid-latitude regions, in particular North America, and whether we can improve the predictability of North American weather extremes using information from the Arctic on both short and long time scales.

Q. What do you find most exciting about this work?

A. I feel excited about this work because the Arctic is extremely important in lots of ways, but we don’t yet have a full understanding of what processes melt the sea ice and what melting sea ice might do to the rest of the globe. This is especially important because in the last few years, terms like “Arctic,” “polar vortex,” and “cold extremes” have consistently drawn widespread media coverage, and sometimes the Arctic is blamed for causing extreme weather events in the U.S. However, from my own perspective, some of the information shared among the general public has been biased and misleading. It’s not a simple problem and I hope, with this Climate and Life fellowship, I will develop a better understanding of the Arctic’s role in affecting North American weather and climate.

Visualization showing the expanse of the annual minimum Arctic sea ice for each year from 1979 through 2018. (Courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio; Blue Marble data courtesy of Reto Stockli/NASA/GSFC)

Q. How might your research advance understanding of the challenges posed by climate change?

A. Scientists have done a great job investigating and understanding how anthropogenic climate change will affect atmospheric circulation, the hydrological cycle, and weather extremes. However, challenges still remain and we are working hard to narrow uncertainties and make more accurate projections of global circulation and weather extremes. For example, it has been widely recognized that the subtropical dry zone and the mid-latitude jet streams will likely shift toward the poles with the warming climate but the amount of the movement varies with different climate models. As Arctic sea ice loss and warming play a significant role in atmospheric circulation, it’s with great hope that an improved understanding of the Arctic will help reduce the uncertainty and contribute to more accurate projections.

Q. When it comes to climate solutions, what gives you hope?

A. I am hopeful because of all the active research that is going on in the scientific community, including advancing fundamental understanding of climate change, impacts, adaptation, vulnerability, mitigation, renewal energy, and many other important topics. I also feel hopeful because of the climate change plans and actions that are already happening in various places, including New York City’s Roadmap to 80 x 50, in which New York City committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Q. What do you recommend the public read to learn more about climate change?

A. I enjoy reading the articles in Climate Fwd:, a newsletter from The New York Timesfocused on climate change.

Wu is convener of a session at the 2018 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting on Arctic and Mid-latitude Linkage: Causes and Effects on Friday, December 14 at 8:00 a.m. She’ll give two talks about her research on the same day: The first from 11:20-11:35 a.m. in the session The Tropical versus Polar “Tug of War” on the Atmospheric General Circulation Response to Climate Change. Her second talk is from 14:45-5:00 p.m. in the session Stratosphere-Troposphere Coupling: Large-Scale Atmospheric Dynamics and Transport.