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Warming Tropical Waters May be Behind Icy US Winter

May 23, 2014 01:00 PM EDT
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In a sort of paradox fashion, warming tropical waters induced by global warming brought an icy US winter in with the tide, a paper in the journal Science indicates.

Tim Palmer, lone author of the paper and UK climate physicist at the University of Oxford, explains that the planet-warming gases that caused rising temperatures in the western Pacific Ocean are the same trade winds responsible for the jet stream that blew in towards the Arctic this past winter.

Aside from the tropical storms and typhoons (like Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines) that bring about heavy downpours, these winds also carry a system of cold weather over the United States and parts of Europe.

"In fact, consistent with that, we had these fantastically strong tropical typhoons in the western Pacific, not least Haiyan which broke all records of wind strength," Palmer told NBC News, while noting that sea surface temperatures were "probably the warmest ever recorded this past year."

And if climate change persists, things will continue to heat up in the ocean, leading to more moisture flowing through jet streams like the one that brought the United States and United Kingdom their worst winters in a quarter of a century.

"There are various links in a long chain, and part of my message is that climate is a complex system," Palmer told Bloomberg. "Interaction between natural climate variability and man-made climate change are coming together in a perfect storm."

Palmer's research builds on work that he began almost 30 years ago that examined how climate trends affected weather patterns in the Eastern United States. He found that El Niño also contributes to warming tropical waters.

Other experts contend that last year's winter storms were just a "freak of nature" and not brought on by global warming.

Martin Hoerling, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Physical Sciences Division, said as much, Reuters reported. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University noted that two years ago similar weather patterns in the Pacific resulted in a pleasantly mild winter for the US.

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