WACCy weather and a warm year


The results are in: 2013 was another warm year, and 2014 is starting where the old year left off – with weird weather around the globe.

Depending on which dataset you choose, 2013 was the fourth warmest year since records began, or the seventh — the exact figure depends on how the various scientific organisations calculate their average, but there’s no escaping one simple fact: it was another warm year in a long run of them, as this graph from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows:


The influence of the El Ninõ-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – that great cyclical sloshing of warm and cold water across the face of the Pacific Ocean – on global temperature is obvious. Years dominated by El Niño events are warm, and shown in orange. Cooler La Niña years are shown in blue, and in between years – like 2013 – in grey. The long term trends are more or less identical. If you want to dig deeper into the various temperature metrics, RealClimate has an excellent post on the subject. Stefan Rahmstorf demonstrates how on one analysis, 15 years of warming on from the record-breaking “super El Niño” of 1998, an ENSO-neutral year like 2013 can nudge ahead in the global temperature stakes. Forget any thoughts about a pause in warming: heat has been accumulating in the climate system and it has been affecting the pattern of weather around the planet.

One of the most obvious signs of continued warming is the steady reduction in the amount of Arctic sea ice at the annual summer minimum. 2013 set no new records for sea ice melt, but it was still one of the lowest years in the record. That reduction in Arctic ice is beginning to change weather patterns around the northern hemisphere. The details of how this is playing out is an area of active (and urgent) research at the moment, but it’s clear that the existence of a huge area of open ocean in autumn where there used to be ice is having an impact.

Take a look at this map (from the excellent new Climate Reanalyzer site) of yesterday’s temperature anomalies over the northern hemisphere. That big area of red and brown over the middle of the Arctic Ocean shows temperatures up to 20ºC above normal. The purple and blue areas over the eastern US and much of Russia are as much 20ºC below normal.


The cold air that should be over the North Pole has gone walkabout, chilling the US, giving Fox News and right wing commentators the chance to scoff at global warming. Meanwhile, Alaska is on its way to what will probably be a record warm January. This sort of weather pattern has been dubbed the Warm Arctic, Cold Continents pattern — WACCy weather, for short. It’s what you might expect to see more of, as the Arctic sea ice continues to melt.

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But that’s not the only odd thing that’s been going on up North. A big and very persistent ridge of high pressure loitering off the Pacific Northwest coast of the US and Canada has forced the winter storms than normally keep the West Coast well watered to divert north to Alaska – helping that state to break temperature records, and delivering huge snowfalls in the coastal mountains. Valdez has lost its road access to giant avalanches, which may not be cleared for a week or more.

While the moisture flows north, California is locked into a record-breaking drought. It’s been warm there too, with very little snow falling in the mountains to provide spring and summer river flows.

For anyone who is interested in the way the climate system works or for weather geeks, this is all fascinating stuff. For the people on the receiving end of the weather extremes, life may not be so much fun. But we can expect more of the same, more WACCy weather and weird patterns, as the atmosphere and oceans adjust to the heat accumulating in the system as the result of our carbon emissions.

The prospects for this year look interesting, in that sense of interesting that includes watching a slow-motion train wreck. That doyen of climate scientists, Jim Hansen, recently suggested (pdf) that the odds against a big El Niño starting sometime this year are shortening. If it starts early enough this year, then 2014 may be warm enough to beat current record holder 2010. If later in the year, then 2015 will have a good shot at the title. Either way, a flip into an El Niño pattern, with warm water spreading eastwards across the Pacific, will change weather patterns around the world and bring more — and different — extremes.


  1. In the paper you refer to by Hansen et.al. when discussion turns to the Francis theory that a warmer Arctic means less of a temperature gradient between the equator and the North pole which causes a slower more likely to meander Jet stream, Hansen says:

    “There has been recent speculation that observed loss of Arctic sea ice may spur winter cold air outbreaks. On the other hand, Fig. 6a shows that there have been large oscillations in winter land temperature in the past when large Arctic sea ice reductions are not known to have occurred and seem unlikely…”

    He cites Kosaka and Xie which I haven’t read.

    Trenberth is also being very cautious when asked about what Francis is asserting.

    • Check out the link under “active (and urgent)”: it’s an interesting discussion of the current debate, by Professor Ricky Rood at Weather Underground.

      Whatever the mechanism, there’s no doubt the Arctic warming is having and will have an influence on the atmospheric circulation. The argument’s about exactly how that’s occurring.

  2. Well we are clearly both warming the climate, and impacting on weather patterns, you would truly have to have your head in the sand (or on ice) not to see it. Its also notable that the trend in your graph clearly shows warming over roughly the last 15 years.

    But let me play out the future. Big el nino then followed by a few cooler years and the sceptics start the clock again and say its cooling blah blah.

  3. And the Greeds and Labour want to increase the population, clearly they don’t read the above facts.
    We are now seeing the birth of generation Omega. Fortunately for us and them most will have ‘disappeared’ by 2040, extinction is our only future. It will be the ‘tions’ that get us – starvation and radiation lol.

      • On current trends population will stabilse within about 60 years at about 2 billion more people than now. Its even slowing in Latin America, catholic Latin America! Malthus didnt count on human responses to the problem, contraception, and the demographic transition.

  4. As I wrote under another blogpost (and if I may be a wee bit lazy and do a C&P);

    It’s bizarre that climate change deniers insist that the Human Race has no effect on global warming. It was only a few decades ago that it was realised that chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) were damaging and reducing the Ozone Layer.

    We got rid of CFCs pretty damn quick, as a result.

    But then, CFCs weren’t a part of the fossil-fuels industry, so had no wealthy backers for the denialists and their shonkey organisations.

    And around 2.4 billion years ago, methane-breathing bacteria – Cyanobacteria – began to convert the methane-ammonia atmosphere of primeval Earth to the Nitrogen-Oxygen atmosphere that sustains current life-forms today(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Oxygenation_Event).

    In two instance – distant past and recent-past – our atmosphere was influenced by living organisms.

    We are doing it again, by pumping tonnes of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, into the atmosphere.

    If we don’t undo what we’ve done, we can kiss civilisation-as-we-know-it goodbye. No more “beersies” for us.

    No more anything.

    • How is the “ozone hole” doing right now, by the way?
      Have you checked?

      By the way, I am unaware of any “denialists” (sic) who claim that humans have no effect on the climate

      We have been affecting the climate ever since we started turning forests into pasture, thousands of years ago

  5. Deja vu all over again?

    At the start of this election campaign there seems to be two words that the Green Party Leaders can’t seem to force past their lips.*

    The closest they can get is this:

    Inequality doesn’t just pollute our community, our culture – our kiwi dream – it pollutes our waters and it pollutes our land. It is caused by decisions of people who are least affected by its fallout.

    Inequality encourages ecological recklessness among the wealthiest people and the richest nations.

    Inequality drives over consumption, then hides the impact from the people who do most of the consuming; rich nations who shift their polluting industries offshore, and wealthy individuals who can afford to fly to Fiji to swim in pristine waters, while other people’s kids can no longer swim in their local river.

    Environmental disasters wreak the most harm on those who contribute the least and are least able to cope with the fallout. We acknowledge the trauma our cousins in Tonga are suffering right now.

    Think: droughts in Africa, typhoons in the Philippines, the razing of forests in Haiti, and Brazil.

    If income inequality in the United States had stayed at the same level in 2010 as it was in 2009 – if inequality had simply not increased – it would have led to decline in CO2 emissions that year. Instead they rose.

    Massively disproportionate consumption is occurring at the top end of the income ladder.

    We do not need to enslave the planet to free her people.

    But till we restore some balance and reduce inequality the planet will continue to be plundered by a privileged few.

    This is why New Zealand needs the Green Party in Government.

    Metiria Turei January 26, 2014

    What is the message here?

    Is it the same message that Green Party politicians told me last elections, “We don’t want to frighten the horses”.

    If the horses bolt it could upset the whole apple cart.

    (Now there is a mixed metaphor for you.)

    So what is the applecart that the Green Party don’t want to upset?

    I think it is encapsulated in the last line.

    “…..New Zealand needs the Green Party in Government.”

    Achieving political power is more important than making a stand against climate change.

    That sectarian advantage is more important than warning the electorate about the danger, which would force the other parties, particularly Labour to take a stand, one way, or the other, which could wreck the Green Labour coalition agreement, keeping the Greens out of government.

    In my opinion the underlying message behind Meteria Turei’s veiled mention of climate change, is the same discredited message we hear from the extreme Left. “We will deal with climate change when we have the power.” That climate change will be solved once we have achieved socialism. (Or in the Greens case, once we are in government.)
    In the case of the Extreme Leftists while we are waiting for their great proletarian revolution, the climate will be wrecked, millions of human beings will die, whole biosphere’s will be wiped out, human civilisation itself will struggle to survive.

    In the case of the Greens, the compromises they will have to accept to get into government on Labour’s terms will mean, accepting deep sea oil drilling, and fracking, and more coal mining and in practice, Business As Usual. ,

    Now I am not against the Greens being in government, but it must be conditional. At the very least the bottom line the the Green Party can not give away is accepting Deep Sea oil Drilling. Deep Sea Oil Drilling is New Zealand’s version of XL pipleline, the single defining issue that says whether you are serious about dealing with climate change or not.

    In his ambition of getting a cabinet post Russel Norman has said that there will be “no bottom lines” and everything will be on the table. A position that he has recently restated over questions of the Green Party’s support for Deep Sea Oil.


    The question must be, will Russel Norman’s personal ambition to get a cabinet post see him turning his back on the shining example of the Politician Activists like Rod Donald and the other Politician Activists of the Green Party and Values Party before them, who achieved far more for this country than Russel Norman could ever hope to achieve with a career in cabinet no matter how glittering it may be.

    Rod Donald more than any other individual spearheaded the campaign for MMP. He spearheaded the campaign to make New Zealand Nuclear Free, and he achieved all this without ever having been in cabinet or even in government.

    *Climate Change

    • Jenny, interesting post but your rhetoric about greens and socialism shows your political colours, you clearly dont like left leaning parties. I think you just want left leaning parties out of government. Of course thats your position and fair enough, but please dont dress it up that you are promoting environmentalism. Im not convinced you support environmentalism, or even believe we are altering the climate.

      The question is would the greens be more effective outside government / parliament simply as an environmental think tank or movement? Probably not. You already have Greenpeace promoting public awareness of environmental matters. Having a Green Party in parliament, or possibly in government, keeps the environment front and centre in peoples minds.

      All parties with rather fixed bottom lines struggle in parliament. Act is another example, they have a very rigid ideology, and one wonders if they are better just as a think tank. But you have think tanks already, like the NZ Institute or Business Roundtable. I dont like Acts belief system by the way, I just pick them as an example.

      The Greens have dealt with the problem by diversifying into a party with social and economic policy. Fair enough.

      Coming back to the Greens, if you want to complain about Norman wanting power or to influence NZ in any particular direction, well how is that different from John Key, Or Winston Peters, Or David Cunliffe? Its really just the direction of ideology you dont like.

      I respect the Greens, but would be lighter green in colour myself, very much the pragmatist and a moderate. But the MMP environment is such that extreme positions dont survive long anyway. No party gets everything they want.

      I dont see what more we can do about climate change awareness. Whether the Greens are inside or outside of parliament what more could they do? The science is there for all to see, as is the rather unusual weather.

      The problem is a group of misleading sceptics have highjacked the debate, and are prepared to pretty much tell a pack of lies or certainly be very missleading. Its hard to deal with people who consistently lie. Its no different from the Tobacco issue.

    • Just so you know, it was Rod Donald who argued most strongly that the Greens should never campaign again with bottom lines, after the 2002 GMO bottom line debacle that enabled Labour to rule the Greens out of govt before the election.

  6. Why Climate Change Is Not An Environmental Issue


    “Climate change. It’s not an ‘issue’ for you to add to the list of things to worry about it. It is a civilizational wake up call. A powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, storms and droughts — telling us that we need an entirely new economic model, one based on justice and sustainability.”
    Naomi Klein

    • we need to put a price on carbon, we need to put a price on [climate change] denial in politics,” he said at the WEF panel on climate change, which also included the Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

      forgive my cynicism but somehow I don’t find the “Nigerian Finance Minister” a very good source of information

      “Unique Business Opportunities” spring to mind

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