Science Stories about Arctic Blasts Missing in Action

By Jack Williams ©2015

The New Year has brought us a blizzard of stories about frigid temperatures and snow storms, but I’ve been unable to find any stories that closely examine what’s going on.

I had been wondering whether I just hadn’t looked hard enough until I read the Jan. 6 Knight Science Journalism Tracker blog and saw that Tracker Charlie Petit is also searching for Arctic blast science stories.

He found a couple of stories that mentioned the Arctic oscillation, but none that answered his question: “Is a corresponding warm air mass billowing from more temperate climes and toward the pole to replace it?

I found a story on the BBC Web site, “Arctic roots of ‘upside down’ weather” by Richard Black that says while many parts of the Northern Hemisphere are very cold, “other places in the Northern Hemisphere are seeing weather that’s unseasonably warm.” But the only example he gives is Goose Bay, Newfoundland.

Jan. 6, 2010 temperatures compared with average for the date. Dark blue and purple are temperatues from 5 to 10 degrees Celsius below average. Orange and red are 15 to 20 degrees above average. NOAA image

Jan. 6, 2010 surface temperatures compared with average for the date. Dark blue and purple are temperatures from 5 to 10 degrees Celsius below average. Orange and red are 15 to 20 degrees C above average. NOAA image

If I had been Black’s editor I would have said, “This sounds interesting, but how does the area of unusual cold compare to those that are warmer than average.” A little bit of research would have turned up the map to the left, or maybe one much like it from a source in the United Kingdom.

The image is from NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory, which shows all of the earth. If you go to the image, scroll down to “Advance One” on the left side and click on the “K” or reverse K you can see a week’s worth of similar daily  images.

The image to the left shows a band of unusually warm surface temperatures all around the high Arctic. On other days the unusual warmth isn’t quite as extensive, but still covers most of the Arctic.

A science writer, who has the time to work on this, could start calling and e-mailing scientists with questions such as:

  • Is the Arctic Oscillation the cause of the northern latitudes warmth?
  • Or, is the warmth the cause of the strongly negative phase of the AO? (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question.
  • Is the cold anomaly all of the way around Antarctica connected to the Arctic warmth?
  • If so, does this mean there is some kind of teleconnection between the Arctic and Antarctic oscillations?
  • Scientists have found connections between the polar oscillations and stratospheric ozone levels, could these be at work here? If so, please explain how this works?
  • Could you give me some detail on how high negative values of the Arctic Oscillation bring cold outbreaks?
  • How do this year’s negative values compare with other cold years, such as the winter of 1976-77?
  • Since Greenland seems to be having a very warm winter–for Greenland–is this likely to affect the Ice Sheet?
     December 2009 Arctic temperatures compared with average. Orange and red colors are more than 6 degrees Celsius above themonthly avrage. Purples are more than 6 degrees below average. A larger versions is on the Snow and Ice Data Center page linked to in the paragraph to the left. NSIDC image.

December 2009 Arctic temperatures compared with average. Orange and red colors are more than 6 degrees Celsius above the monthly average. Purples are more than 6 degrees below average. A larger version is on the Snow and Ice Data Center report linked to in the paragraph to the upper left. NSIDC image.

A good source for any story dealing with the polar regions is the National Snow and Ice Data center. In fact, on Jan. 5, the NSIDC published a report on “Extreme negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation yields a warm Arctic.” This would be a good starting place for anyone who wants to put the current cold weather in context. In my years at USA TODAY and while writing the AMS Weather Book I found NSIDC scientists always willing to explain the fine points and the context of what’s happening with the world’s ice.

While I haven’t found any news media stories that really look into the Arctic warmth-lower latitude cold links, the WWF Climate Blog looks into this with its “Looking for Above Normal Temperatures” They are in the Arctic” posting.

At first glance, this looks sound to me. But, as I sometimes told interns and new hires who worked for me at USA TODAY: “Treat press releases or blogs from interest groups as you would an anonymous call or e-mail. Apply the first law of journalism: If your mother  tells  you she loves you, check it out.”

That is, call a few–not just one or two–scientists who have done research that’s been published in peer-reviewed journals and ask them about the release or blog.

My AMS Weather Book is a good source for reporters, including science reporters who haven’t been covering atmospheric science, on topics such as the Arctic Oscillation and global weather patterns. Anyone looking for more on the Arctic Oscillation can go to the Sources for Chapter 5 page of the Web site with source notes and other supplementary material about the book, including pages 120-122, which cover these and other patterns.

But, good editors or reporters shouldn’t have to wait for press releases or blogs to ask questions. Their own curiosity should drive them to ask questions such as, “How does our cold weather fit into the global picture? What’s causing it? But, during my many years writing about weather and climate I was amazed by editors’ general lack of curiosity about the physical world.

If I were the czar of journalism training, I’d make sure no one leaves without vowing to live by the lesson that Harold Evans, one of the titans of 20th century journalism, learned as a beginner and that he writes about on page 83  in his autobiography, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times:

In 1944, when he was 16 years old, Evans began his journalism career at a small newspaper in Ashton-under-Lyne, which is part of the Manchester, England, urban area. Since getting to the office from his home in Failsworth required changing buses three times, he usually rode his bicycle the 14 miles, one-way. One day Evans’ editor introduced him to the head of the chain that owned the paper, and told him that Evans had cycled 14 miles to work.

“Very good,” the big boss said. “Now, Evans, how many spokes are there in a bicycle wheel?”

“I don’t know, Sir.”

“Find out. Curiosity is the thing in journalism. Ask questions, Evans.”

If many science reporters hadn’t been let go in the last several months, more newspapers, wire services, networks, Web sites, and broadcasters would still have enough people around who were full of questions about the physical world to realize that questions like mine above are the makings of good stories.

Not that many years ago any news organization that saw itself as a major player would have had a science writer or writers tracking down the kinds of questions above while other reporters would be assigned to find out what the arctic warming is meaning to people in places such as Alaska, northeastern Canada, and Greenland, including at the National Science Foundation’s Summit Camp near the center of the Ice Sheet where a winter-over crew is making regular weather observations. All of this would be in addition to the routine, and somewhat tired, stories about people coping with the cold in the United States.

Also, the lack of stories giving a well-rounded picture of how the cold that’s driving up your heating bill fits into the global picture only encourages the kind of “oh, I’m so smart” yahoos who like to add comments to online climate stories, such as: “There Mr Scientist. Why won’t you admit now that global warming is a hoax.”

By the way, any science writer who tries to confuse climate change deniers with facts, can expect some, let us say, “earthy” e-mails. One doesn’t want to stoop to the level of those who send such e-mails, does one?  Instead, you could refer them to the the educational response that Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post published in his Dec. 27, 2009 “Under the Beltway” column.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses to “Science Stories about Arctic Blasts Missing in Action”

  1. […] The rest is here: Science Stories about Arctic Blasts Missing in Action | Jack Williams […]

  2. […] as USA Today’s top weather journalist, offers a useful prescription in a January 6 “Science Stories about Arctic Blasts Missing in Action” blog […]

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by weatherjackwill: Science stories about cold missing in action:

  4. […] to be as inclusive as those triggered by El Niño in the South Pacific” [Discovery News]. Jack Williams has more about […]