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The Big Chill: Polar Vortex Linked to Climate Change

Sep 04, 2014 02:18 PM EDT

New research indicates that the polar vortex, the huge mass of swirling Arctic air that circulates around the Earth's poles, is linked to climate change.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, says that as the world gets warmer, parts of North America, Europe and Asia - which have already seen cold winters - could see more frequent and stronger visits of that cold air.

"Successive cold winters of severely low temperatures in recent years have had critical social and economic impacts on the mid-latitude continents in the Northern Hemisphere," the researchers wrote. "Although these cold winters are thought to be partly driven by dramatic losses of Arctic sea-ice, the mechanism that links sea-ice loss to cold winters remains a subject of debate."

A team of Korean and American scientists speculate that the polar vortex is the missing link.

Normally, the polar vortex is confined to the Arctic, The Associated Press (AP) reports, but at times it escapes and wanders south, bringing with it a bit of Arctic super chill. There are several reasons that can explain this phenomenon, and the new study suggests that ice-loss in the northern seas, which exposes more water, is one of them.

When these areas are ice free, the open water releases heat into the atmosphere, building up to a such a point that it destabilizes the Arctic polar vortex, thereby weakening the jet stream and sending waves of cold air southward, the researchers explain.

Russian seas, in particular, have experienced dramatic declines in sea-ice, which normally act as insulation against the Arctic's chilling winds. Now that much of this air is free to travel south, it's playing a part in the frigid winters North America, Asia, and Europe have endured.

The study observed historical data from the Kara and Barents seas, as well as conducted computer simulations, which showed a strong correlation between shrinking sea ice and cold outbreaks, according to lead author Baek-Min Kim, a research scientist at the Korea Polar Research Institute.

A large portion of sea ice melting is driven by man-made climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, Kim added.

"This sea ice loss is related to anthropogenic effects," he told Slate.

Kim's study also cautions that the severe loss of Arctic sea ice is likely not the only factor causing the recent destabilization of the polar vortex. Fluctuations in Siberian snow cover, as well as a host of other natural climatic fluctuations, have also been implicated based on previous research.

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