North Pole Above Freezing? Not Really

This past week several newspapers and web sites carried headlines that a strong winter storm in the Atlantic was pushing warm air into the Arctic and that the North Pole would see temperatures above freezing, which would cause the ice at the Pole to start melting.  It was true that warm air was deflected northward into the Arctic but it wasn’t true that the Pole would be above freezing or that there were would be any melting. These articles, which were repeated, are a good example of how the media hypes anything having to do with weather and climate. After the “warm” air mass reached the vicinity of the North Pole, the media reported that the temperature had risen several degrees above freezing. Some claimed temperatures of 40F. None of these claims are true.

When discussing “the North Pole,” it is important to understand a few thing. For one, there are actually two “North Poles,” the actual North Pole, which at 90 degrees north latitude, and the magnetic North Pole, which is actually several hundred miles south of the actual North Pole, and which is constantly shifting. There is also a geomagnetic North Pole, which exists only in theory as the point at which magnetic forces between the Earth and Sun converge. To complicate the issue even further, there is a town in Alaska named North Pole, a suburb of Fairbanks which is located over 1,500 miles south of the geographical North Pole and over 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. On Wednesday, December 30 when the temperature at the Pole was supposed to be above freezing, North Pole, AK was 40F. Another factor that is important to consider is the distance between degree of latitude, which is approximately 60 nautical miles or 69 statute miles. The actual distance varies from the equator to the Pole, with the distance at the North Pole being slightly more than 69 miles statue.

Unlike the South Pole, which is a geographical feature located on the continent of Antarctica, the North Pole is a geographical point in the Arctic Ocean. For all practical purposes, both Poles are located on ice but the ice at the North Pole, which averages from 6 to 10 feet thick, floats and moves while the South Pole is on an ice sheet and does not move. This is important to understand because, except for summer when research teams (sometimes) visit the North Pole and take measurements, all weather observations are taken from buoys which drift considerable distances and are not physically located at the Pole. This link is to a table of all of the buoys in Arctic – Note that the closest buoy to the North Pole, Buoy # 6400474 is a little over 70 miles from the Pole. At 0603Z (GMT) on December 30, the temperature reached -.9C, or just over 30F. This temperature was the high mark of a period of roughly 24 hours in which the temperature rose toward the freezing mark then dropped again to temperatures well below 0F. Another buoy, Buoy # 6400476, rose to .7C (33.26F) for one observation than immediately began dropping and was down to -16C nine hours later. This particular buoy is 180 miles south of the Pole and 110 miles further south than Buoy #474. In spite of the distance, a Washington Post writer used this buoy to imply that temperature at the Pole rose above freezing – while ignoring the closer buoy which showed that it didn’t. The same article used data from the GFS model, a US National Weather Service model that predicted temperatures several degrees above freezing at the Pole as “proof” that the Pole became “unfrozen” without acknowledging that the GFS is a computer model rather than an observation.

Granted, an exceptionally strong storm forced warm air from the Gulf of Mexico up over the North Atlantic and over Iceland and into the Arctic, however, the “warm” temperatures only lasted for a few hours. The current temperature at the North Pole as reported by the Canadian weather site The Weather Network is -31C (-23.8F). No, the ice at the North Pole isn’t melting, nor is the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

Incidentally, this is the same storm that brought heavy snow to Texas and the Midwest while pushing warm air up the East Coast before it moved out into the Atlantic and brought high winds to Ireland.