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Unusually High Temperatures In Arctic Rise In Frequency


The weather has been a big story across the country this week - dangerously high winds in the Northeast, heavy snow in the Midwest and heavy rains in the West. But there's another strange weather story that isn't as visible as the broken trees and flooding you've probably seen on the news, but it's still cause for concern. It's in the Arctic. Even though the sun hasn't come out there in months, temperatures in some areas have been above freezing, and in some areas were the highest ever recorded in February.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Professor Katharine Hayhoe. She's a professor of climate science at Texas Tech University, and she's with us now from Lubbock, Texas. Professor, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Would you give us some sense of how unusual these temperatures have been in the Arctic?

HAYHOE: Well, the Arctic does get winter heat waves - not what you or I would consider a heat wave, but what you'd consider in the Arctic to be a heat wave - about once every 10 years. But what we're seeing is that these heat waves are getting more and more frequent. And they are getting stronger and stronger to the point where last week, almost all of Europe except for southern Spain and Italy was colder than northern Greenland.

MARTIN: And what does it have to do with the Arctic?

HAYHOE: What happens is the polar vortex, which seals the Arctic off in the winter, it's been weakening. And last week, it actually weakened and split in half, which effectively opened the refrigerator door. And all of that cold air in the Arctic came cascading down over Europe.

MARTIN: And so what have been some of the other effects of this?

HAYHOE: Well, the Arctic is one of the most sensitive parts of our planet. We've known since the 1890s that the Arctic would be warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world in response to human-induced change. What's happening up in the Arctic is as it warms, sea ice is melting. And that exposes dark ocean, which absorbs even more heat. And that is why the Arctic is warming so much faster. And we are just starting to understand how the Arctic warming is affecting the weather patterns down here where we live.

MARTIN: I know that you're about to embark yourself on a number of talks with your colleagues. What are you saying to each other? And what do you want the rest of us to know about this?

HAYHOE: In terms of the conversation about climate change in general, I think the two most important things for us to understand are we care about it not just because it affects the polar bear - because it affects us. Climate change affects our food, our water, our energy, our economy, our national security, our health. It affects us in the places where we live by exacerbating or amplifying the risks that we already face naturally.

And the second most important thing, I think, that people need to know is the fact that we can fix this thing if we take it seriously and we act now. I mean, there's more solar energy jobs now in the U.S. than in the coal industry. The Museum of Coal Mining in Kentucky put solar panels on their roof. Here in Texas, we got 18 percent of our electricity from wind last year, and we're going up and up every year. Things are changing, but we just need them to change faster and happen quicker to avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts.

MARTIN: It's not a secret that this administration in the United States is very skeptical about climate change. As a climate scientist, does that make your job harder?

HAYHOE: Well, gravity doesn't care if we believe in it or not. If we step off the cliff, we're going down. And climate doesn't care whether we believe that temperatures are going up and humans are responsible. The world is warming, and humans are responsible. And the impacts are serious. So what are the consequences of ignoring facts? The consequences are serious repercussions for all of us who are affected by the decisions that are made if they are made ignoring reality.

MARTIN: That's Katharine Hayhoe. She's a professor of climate science at Texas Tech University. She spoke to us from Lubbock. Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HAYHOE: Oh, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.