Lessons from Storm Emma and the Beast from the East

Trekking down the road to check on an elderly friend, what is normally a 30 second walk turned into a 10 minute trek.

As we crawl – literally crawl – through the drifts of snow up to 90cm high, I think about what I am witnessing.

In normal conditions, the small and narrow roads in the Irish countryside are usually very scenic, surrounded by thick hedges, open fields and woodlands.

This past week, however, the landscape is transformed, blanketed in snow thanks to biting winds blustering their way through the countryside.

The sight is impressive, absolutely beautiful but also terrifying – nature’s elegant display in the wrong place. For the past few days, Europe has been hit by a wave of dry arctic winds and abnormally cold temperatures.

The Beast from the East, as it has been christened, is caused by a disruption in the polar vortex, an area of low pressure that normally sits in the northernmost regions of the Earth.

At times, the polar vortex is disrupted due to stratospheric sudden warmings, a radical change in the temperatures caused by atmospheric waves in the troposphere moving upward into the stratosphere.

Northern hemisphere total ozone, potential vorticity on the 460 K potential temperature surface, and temperature on the 50 hPa pressure surface for 13 and 20 February 1989. This day is an example of a sudden stratospheric warming.
From NASA Ozone Watch

These waves can cause a shift of the polar vortex away from the North Pole and bring warmer temperatures in the pole region.

On this occasion, the planetary waves have moved upwards causing the polar vortex to weaken and divide, in turn sending a portion of that polar vortex downwards towards Europe.

There are other events occurring simultaneously such as winter warming events caused by major storms, bringing warm winds and moist air from the Atlantic across the North Pole.

According to a recent study, these winter warming events form part of normal climate patterns in the Arctic, however, they are becoming more prevalent and lasting longer than three decades ago.

The study’s authors indicate that one of the main issues with the increasing prevalence of winter warming events is the accelerating effects of global warming in the Arctic due to ice not being able to grow, thicken and expand during the main seasons for ice growth which are fall and winter.

According to scientists, the ice covering the Arctic ocean in 2018 is at record low size for this time of the year.

“I think it’s fair to say that this event is unprecedented in our record — both in terms of the magnitude and (for Kap Morris Jesup at least) the duration,” said Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, in a recent tweet.

The polar vortex winds last stop was over the island of Ireland, where they collided with Storm Emma, a storm system from the Atlantic carrying with it high amounts of moist and strong winds.

The collision has caused huge snow drifts, flooding and high winds all over Ireland, shutting the country down for over three days and leaving people in rural areas homebound for up to a week.

Although more data is needed, there is general consensus among scientists that these events could be linked to global warming caused by human activity and become more frequent in the near future.

I think, however, that we have enough data to realise how much harm we have done to our planet, we just need to observe our consumption patterns, our congested cities, polluted rivers, and the plastics floating on the oceans, as just a few examples.

Nature’s balance has been disturbed and we will have to deal with the consequences, starting with the clean up next week as this unprecedented snow event clears.

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