Temperature difference from normal as analyzed by GFS model on Dec. 22. (University of Maine Climate Reanalyzer)

(This story has been been updated.)

Santa may need water skis instead of a sleigh this year.

A weather buoy about 90 miles south of the North Pole registered a temperature at the melting point of 32 degrees (0 Celsius) early Thursday, as a giant storm east of Greenland drew abnormally warm air northward.

Weather models had predicted temperatures could get this warm and this buoy, part of the North Pole Environmental Observatory, provides validation.

“It seems likely areas very close to or at the North Pole were at the freezing point” Thursday, said Zachary Labe, a doctoral student researching Arctic climate and weather at the University of California at Irvine.

Data from the buoy (No. 300234064010010, which can be downloaded here) show that air temperatures have risen more than 40 degrees in the past two days, when they hovered near minus-11 degrees (minus-24 Celsius) which, even then, was above average.


Temperature near 89N latitude Dec. 20-22. (Data from North Pole Environmental Observatory buoy 300234064010010)

The entire Arctic north of 80 degrees, roughly the size of the Lower 48 states, has witnessed a sharp temperature spike reaching levels 30-35 degrees (nearly 20 Celsius) above normal. In reviewing historical records back to 1958, one cannot find a more intense anomaly – except following a similar spike just five weeks ago.

Temperature compared to normal in Arctic north of 80N latitude. (Danish Meteorological Institute)
Temperature compared to normal in Arctic north of 80N latitude. (Danish Meteorological Institute)

Consider the average temperature in this large region is about minus-20 degrees (minus-29 Celsius) at this time of year, but had shot up to 12 Thursday.

Labe said the huge flux of warmth into the region may have contributed to the loss of sea ice at a time when the region is usually gaining ice.

Near the Franz Joseph Islands east of Svalbard, satellite imagery shows a large mass of ice vanishing over the last day. “This is pretty dramatic,” he tweeted.

Data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center indicate the Arctic lost about 57,000 square miles of ice (148,000 square kilometers) in the past day, which is roughly the size of Illinois. Labe cautioned, however, the ice loss data are preliminary and require quality control.

In Longyearbyen, Norway, which is on the island of Svalbard in the Nordic Seas, the high reached 36 degrees Thursday, according to Weather Underground, beating the old daily record of 33 degrees.

Although it is common for large storms to transport large quantities of heat into the high Arctic, inducing large temperature swings, the intensity of warmth — more than 40 degrees above normal — has caught the attention of scientists.

This is the second time in the past five weeks such a steep rise in temperatures has occurred. In mid-November, temperatures averaged over the high Arctic were also about 30-35 degrees above normal.

An analysis from Climate Central, a nonprofit science organization, found that a warm event of comparable intensity to what occurred in November “would have been extremely unlikely in a climate of a century ago” before heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere had grown to current levels.


(Climate Central)

“If nothing is done to slow climate change, by the time global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), events like this winter would become common at the North Pole, happening every few years,” Climate Central concluded.

A similar spike to the present also occurred last year, when a buoy near the North Pole also showed temperatures at the melting point. This sharp rise motivated a study in the journal Nature, which concluded that the loss of sea ice in the Arctic over time “is making it easier for weather systems to transport this heat polewards.”

While the Arctic witnesses freak temperature rises, the cold air normally positioned there has sloshed southward into Siberia.

Temperatures there have crashed to about 60 degrees below normal, with air temperatures flirting with minus-60.

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Correction: This post originally stated the sea ice loss in the Arctic (57,000 square miles) between Wednesday and Thursday was equivalent to the size of Michigan (area of about 97,000 square miles). It is actually more comparable to the area Illinois (about 58,000 square miles) or Iowa (about 56,000 square miles).