The North Pole hasn’t seen the sun for months, but temperatures there briefly skyrocketed to as high as 35° F (2° C) over the weekend, according to the U.S. Global Forecast System.
It’s highly unusual for the tip of the Earth to experience these bursts of warmth in February. But a study published in July found that since 1980, such anomalies have become more common. As a matter of fact, we’re having déjà vu—scientists recorded a similar phenomenon in November of 2016. In this more recent case, the temperature for the entire region north of 80° latitude reached its highest level ever recorded. The average temperature was more than 36° F (20° C) above normal.
Robert Graham of the Norwegian Polar Institute, was the lead author on the aforementioned study. Here’s Jason Samenow, reporting for The Washington Post his on Graham’s perspective:
Graham explained that these warming events are related to the decline of winter sea ice in the Arctic, noting that January’s ice extent was the lowest on record. “As the sea ice is melting and thinning, it is becoming more vulnerable to these winter storms,” he explained. “The thinner ice drifts more quickly and can break up into smaller pieces. The strong winds from the south can push the ice further north into the Central Arctic, exposing the open water and releasing heat to the atmosphere from the ocean.”
Scientists were shocked in recent days to discover open water north of Greenland, an area normally covered by old, very thick ice. “This has me more worried than the warm temps in the Arctic right now,” tweeted Mike MacFerrin, an ice sheet specialist at the University of Colorado.
Zack Labe, a climate scientist working on his Ph.D. at the University of California at Irvine, confirmed the finding through an independent analysis and shared it on Twitter:
The extreme event continues to unfold in the high #Arctic today in response to a surge of moisture and “warmth”
— Zack Labe (@ZLabe) February 25, 2018
One explanation for what we’re seeing here is the progress of storms moving toward the North Pole through the Greenland Sea, pulling heat to the north—as opposed to an indirect path through the Barents Sea. Ocean and air temperatures around Greenland are higher than usual, too; the weather station Cape Morris Jesup near the northernmost point of Greenland (and 400 miles to the south of the north pole) has spent 61 hours above freezing so far in 2018.
It’s too soon to tell if this is a “new normal” for the Arctic or if it’s one of a series of skewed temperature patterns. Either way, scientists are tracking this data very closely to prepare for our planet’s future.