The ‘Beast from the East’ and the freakishly warm Arctic temperatures are no coincidence

Frozen: the Kennet & Avon canal, Bath. Image: Getty.

During the past few weeks, bitterly cold weather has engulfed the UK and most of Northern Europe. At the same time, temperatures in the high Arctic have been 10 to 20°C above normal – although still generally below freezing.

The co-occurence of these two opposite extremes is no random coincidence. A quick climate rewind reveals how an unusual disturbance in the tropics more than a month ago sent out shock-waves thousands of kilometres in all directions, causing extreme weather events – not only in Europe and the Arctic, but in the southern hemisphere too.

The outbreak of cold weather across the UK was publicly forecast at least two weeks in advance. In early February, meteorologists noticed a large-scale weather event developing 30km high in the Arctic stratosphere, whose effects on our less lofty weather systems are well understood.

The strong westerly winds, known as the Polar Vortex, that normally circle the Arctic at this altitude had begun to weaken and change direction. Extremely cold arctic air – usually entrapped by this 360° barrier – was able to spill out to lower latitudes, flooding across Siberia.

Meteorologists refer to this type of event as a Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW) because the air in the stratosphere above the North Pole appears to warm rapidly. In fact, the cold air isn’t itself warming up so much as flooding south and being replaced by warmer air from further south.

Current air temperatures in the Arctic are much higher than recent historical averages. Image: Zachary Labe.

Changes to wind directions and temperatures 30km above the ground initially went unnoticed to those on the ground – both in Europe and in the Arctic. But over a period of several weeks, the influence of this weather event moved gradually downwards through the lower region of the atmosphere, eventually changing weather patterns near the surface.

One such change was the development of high pressure across Scandinavia, which generated easterly winds across the whole of Northern Europe, pulling cold air from Siberia directly over the UK. Out over the Atlantic Ocean the same area of high pressure resulted in southerly winds allowing warm air from the Atlantic to move northwards into the Arctic basin. Research shows that these weather shifts tend to be fairly persistent once they do occur – hence the unusual length of the cold spell we’re experiencing, and the warmth in the Arctic.

But what caused the stratospheric Arctic warming event to happen in the first place? For this we need to look thousands of kilometres away to the atmosphere above the tropical West Pacific Ocean. In late January, a vast area of thunderstorms, as large and strong as have ever been recorded, were disturbing the atmosphere across this region. The effect of these storms was equivalent to the dropping of a large boulder into a pond – they caused waves of alternating high and low pressure to spread through the atmosphere, particularly into the northern hemisphere. It was these waves bumping into the vortex of winds around the North Pole that caused the Sudden Stratospheric Warming event in early February.

The very same area of thunderstorms across the tropical Pacific acted as the birthplace for the less-reported Cyclone Gita, which tracked through the South Pacific, causing damage in Tonga and Samoa and even leading to unseasonably stormy weather across New Zealand at the end of their summer.


The near simultaneous occurrence of all of these extreme weather events is a perfect meteorological illustration of the butterfly effect. While we usually talk about weather in local and regional terms, the atmosphere is one continuous fluid expanse. Disturbances in one region are bound to have consequences to the weather in other parts of the world – and when they are severe the shock-waves can be immense.

Many have linked the severity of these events with climate change. But, particularly for this event, its important for us meteorologists to exercise caution. The occurrence of this particular stratospheric warming event is not itself a consequence of climate change, as one extreme weather event on its own does not tell us anything about long-term trends in the Earth’s climate.

What’s important is to look at how often these events occur – and how severe they are when they do. However, the series of events that lead to cold weather over Europe are complex and have only been well understood for the past 20 years or so. Without a few more decades of data, it is difficult to say whether either the stratospheric warming or the intense tropical storms are part of a pattern that falls outside of what we would normally expect – though limited research does already suggest that Stratospheric Sudden Warming events are becoming more frequent.

The ConversationFor other extreme weather events, the story is clearer – evidence increasingly suggests that hurricanes, storms and wildfires are becoming both more frequent and more severe than they once were. Time will tell if its the same story for Stratospheric Sudden Warming and tropical disturbances.

Evidence from these recent temperature extremes will certainly help researchers to understand this question. But if we do what we can to minimise the damaging impacts of climate change, we may never need to find out.

Peter Inness, Lecturer in Meteorology, University of Reading.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.