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Friday, December 23, 2011

Jeff Masters: The Arctic Oscillation and its influence on winter weather

The Arctic Oscillation and its influence on winter weather

by Jeff Masters, wunderblog, December 22, 2011

The Arctic Oscillation (AO), and its close cousin, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), are climate patterns in the Northern Hemisphere defined by fluctuations in the difference of sea-level pressure between the Icelandic Low and the Azores High. It is one of oldest known climate oscillations -- seafaring Scandinavians described the pattern several centuries ago. 

Through east-west oscillation motions of the Icelandic Low and the Azores High, the AO and NAO control the strength and direction of westerly winds and storm tracks across the North Atlantic. A large difference in the pressure between Iceland and the Azores (positive AO/NAO) leads to increased westerly winds and mild winter in the U.S. and Western Europe. Positive AO/NAO conditions also cause the Icelandic Low to draw a stronger south-westerly flow of air over eastern North America, preventing Arctic air from plunging southward. 

In contrast, if the difference in sea-level pressure between Iceland and the Azores is small (negative AO/NAO), westerly winds are suppressed, allowing Arctic air to spill southwards into eastern North America more readily. Negative AO/NAO winters tend to bring cold winters to Europe and the U.S. East Coast, but leads to very warm conditions in the Arctic, since all the cold air spilling out of the Arctic gets replaced by warm air flowing poleward. The winter of 2009-2010 had the most extreme negative NAO and AO since record keeping began in 1865; a very extreme AO/NAO also developed during the winter of 2010-2011. 

But this year, the pattern has flipped. The AO has been almost as strong, but in the opposite sense -- a positive AO, leading to very warm conditions over the U.S. Unfortunately, the AO is difficult to predict more than a week or two and advance, and we don't understand why the AO can vary so much from winter to winter. The latest predictions from the ECMWF and GFS models show this positive AO pattern continuing for at least the next 10 days. 

Real winter conditions won't arrive in the U.S. until the first week of January, at the earliest. Between now and the end of 2011, the only major winter storm the GFS model expects in the U.S. will be in the Pacific Northwest, on December 30-31, 2011.

Figure 3. The departure of temperature from average in Centigrade during the November-December-January period during various phases of the Arctic Oscillation (AO). Positive AO conditions lead to warm winters in the U.S., while negative AO conditions lead to cold winters. Image credit: NOAA/CPC.

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