Category Archives: Ice Cap

El Niño vs. Polar Vortex

Three months ago, way out in the western Pacific, a plume of warm water began to inch its way east along the equator. El Niño is coming.

Source: NOAA/Dan Pisut/Climate Prediction Center

Source: NOAA/Dan Pisut/Climate Prediction Center

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration says that the “El Niño / La Niña climate pattern … is the 800-pound gorilla of Earth’s climate system. On a global scale, no other single phenomenon has a greater influence on whether a year will be warmer, cooler, wetter, or drier than average.”

The El Niño / La Niña phenomenon is also known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). El Niños are the warm phase of ENSO. They feature a winter low in the north Pacific that tends to shoot heavy rains straight into California and the southern U.S. El Niños also tend to suppress hurricanes.

In La Niñas, the cool phase, a winter high replaces the low and tends to shunt subtropical moisture north into Alaska, where the polar jet stream drags it into Canada and the northeastern U.S. La Niñas tend to promote hurricanes.

The ENSO cycle causes similar dynamics across the globe.

El Nino / La Nina Winter

Source: NOAA

The warming water that drives the ENSO cycle occupies a 4,000-mile stretch between Darwin, Australia, and Tahiti.

Here’s my question: if a 4,000-mile stretch of water off the coast of Australia can cause such huge shifts in global weather dynamics, why is it so hard to imagine that the disappearance of the 2,500-mile Arctic ice cap siting atop the earth’s axis, the hub of planetary circulation, will drive—in fact, is already driving—much larger dynamics? That it will completely disrupt the polar vortex and the pattern of seasonal highs and lows it touches, including the ENSO highs and lows?

With ENSO, warm water gets a bit warmer, then migrates to displace colder water from the Humboldt Current of the west coast of the Americas.

With the disappearance of the ice cap, we’re not talking about incremental temperature change. We’re talking about phase change. We’re talking about crossing a primary physical boundary—32°F.  We’re talking about going from frozen to thawed, solid to liquid, ice to water, white to black, heat-reflective to heat-absorbent, presence to absence. Not different, opposite.

Do we really have to experience this disruption before we appreciate its scale and permanence? Or can we just do an elementary thought experiment, decide we don’t want to see it play out, and mount a World War Two-style effort including a carbon tax?

Would not the ice-free Arctic be the 8,000-pound Godzilla of of Earth’s climate system?




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Filed under Climate Change, Ice Cap