Climate Change Plays ‘Fairly Insignificant’ Role In Current Warm Weather

arctic oscNPR’s Ari Shapiro speaks to Mike Halpert, NOAA’s deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, about the odd weather caused by El Nino and if climate change has a role.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I’m here in Washington, D.C., where people have been outside, walking around in shorts and flip-flops. We’ve got Mike Halpert on the line. He’s deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And Mr. Halpert, what temperature should it be in Washington in the middle of December?

MIKE HALPERT: Middle of December, we oftentimes see highs roughly in the mid-40s, lows – somewhere just below freezing.

SHAPIRO: The other day, I saw lilacs blooming.

HALPERT: Well, it certainly a – been a very warm period that we’ve had here in December. I know. I was talking with other colleagues – certainly quite unusual.

SHAPIRO: Well, then, the next question is, why?

HALPERT: There’s a couple of factors at play here. I think everybody’s well aware that we have a strong El Nino that’s kind of started back last spring, and El Nino is known to exert a pattern that oftentimes favors warmer-than-average temperatures. There’s another factor that seems to maybe have been playing even a larger role over the last four to six weeks. It’s something that we call the Arctic oscillation.

SHAPIRO: Explain what the Arctic oscillation is. We don’t hear as much about that as we do about El Nino.

HALPERT: Yeah. It’s an atmospheric pattern, and it relates basically the pressures at the polar regions to the pressures in the mid-latitudes where we live. It becomes much more newsworthy, typically, when we’re very cold here because that’s associated with the negative phase of the Arctic oscillation oftentimes. And what that means, is that the polar vortex, which may be surprising to some but not to a meteorologist – the polar vortex, which is located around the pole, weakens and allows cold air to spill out. This year, we’re seeing the opposite. So we’ve had a strong polar vortex, and it’s cold up at the polls but not really anywhere else.

SHAPIRO: OK. So El Nino plays a roll. The Arctic oscillation plays a role. What about climate change? Is that playing a role?

HALPERT: If it is, it’s probably fairly insignificant at this point. If it were to play a role, it would be more likely if, somehow, climate change is impacting either the Arctic oscillation or El Nino, and we’re not really aware that it is at this point. If you think about, maybe – the high temperature over the weekend was 70, so maybe without climate change, it would’ve been 69. I think it’s a fairly insignificant role, if any role at all.

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