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Snowier Winters Predicted for Northeastern U.S.

This image illustrates how cold December was compared to the average of temperatures recorded in December between 2000 and 2008. Blue points to colder than average land surface temperatures, while red indicates warmer temperatures. Much of the Northern Hemisphere experienced cold land surface temperatures, but the Arctic was exceptionally warm. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Kevin Ward)

Snowpocalypse 2010, instead of a frigid anomaly, may have been a mere glimpse into a snowed-in future for parts of the world, a new study suggests.

"Cold and snowy winters will be the rule, rather than the exception," said climatologist James Overland of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Wash.

The 2010 winter storms provided the first evidence that the Arctic climate is becoming more connected with the rest of the world, Overland told OurAmazingPlanet. As a result, expect more cold and snowy winters in Europe, eastern Asia and eastern North America.

Shifting winds

A warmer Arctic climate is influencing the air pressure at the North Pole and shifting wind patterns on our planet, said Overland, who chaired one of the climate discussions at the International Polar Year Oslo Science Conference, held last week.

It may seem counterintuitive that as the world heats up, certain places may experience harsh winters. But in the Arctic, a little bit of global warming goes a long way. Loss of sea ice, a warmer ocean and warmer air temperatures above the ocean combine to muck with wind patterns. As a result, the cold air from the Arctic is no longer bottled up, but instead gets blown further south.

"Everyone thinks that with global warming you just slowly warm everywhere, but you end up with these surprises," Overland said.

Scientists saw this weather pattern in action this past winter for the first time in 170 years, Overland said. The record-setting winter storms known as Snowpocalypse 2010 in the press were a perfect example of how colder Arctic winds can blow all the way south to Washington D.C., burying parts of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic under feet of snow.

"The exceptional cold and snowy winter of 2009 to 2010 in Europe, eastern Asia and eastern North America is connected to unique physical processes in the Arctic," Overland said.

Arctic amplification

Miserable winters in some locales do not negate other evidence Earth, as a whole, is heating up. Since NOAA began keeping records in 1880, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for both April and for the period from January through April in 2010.

The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, because as ice melts at the top of the world, there is less of it to reflect sunlight back into space, so more of it is absorbed by ocean waters; more absorbed sunlight means even warmer temperatures, which means more ice melt a circular process known as Arctic amplification. This process is happening a great deal faster than the scientific community had expected. Now, models predict a complete loss of summer sea ice in 30 years.

Arctic sea ice extent was below normal for the 11th consecutive April this year, covering an average of 5.7 million square miles (14.7 million square kilometers) 2.1 percent below the 1979-2000 average extent and the 15th smallest April extent since records began in 1979. It was, however, the largest April Arctic sea ice extent since 2001.

The area of multi-year sea ice the thicker and more robust kind and the ice thickness in the Arctic has plummeted so low that "the changes are irreversible," Overland said.

Brett Israel was a staff writer for Live Science with a focus on environmental issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from The University of Georgia, a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, and has studied doctorate-level biochemistry at Emory University.