Arctic temperatures soar to 30 C above normal

"Southerners think it's just about whether we're going to have a white Christmas and skinny polar bears," a climatologist says about the warming Arctic. "But for northern people, it's a life or death situation."

Bizarre weather continues in the North

The Arctic climate is changing, alarming climatologists. (CBC)

The Arctic continues to run a fever. 

On Thursday, the temperature there was almost 30 C warmer than average, and it continued into Friday morning. Ocean buoys recorded temperatures near the North Pole of 0 C or warmer. That's right: It's warmer in the Arctic than it is in Thunder Bay, Ont.

This isn't an isolated event. Arctic temperatures have been unusually warm for the past few months, though perhaps not quite as dramatically different as we're seeing now.

Map illustrating temperature anomalies around the world on Dec. 23 shows the Arctic is far warmer than normal. (University of Maine)

In November, the region was 20 C warmer than average.

"The temperatures there of the atmosphere are on … any given day, like 20 C warmer than they should be for this time of year," Jennifer Francis, a marine and coastal sciences research professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told CBC News at the time.

"The ocean temperatures there are also warmer than they should be. I'm really, really worried, and I think everyone should be."

Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, told CBC News the warming is a sign that climate change is happening and is part of a changing world.

And as it warms, older ice melts, leaving thin ice in its wake. This allows the ice to melt faster.

Sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic is declining. (Reuters)

In fact, models — which Scambos says are "fairly generous" — anticipate an ice-free Arctic by the 2050s or 2060s, though it could happen sooner.

"There's an inertia to the climate system," Scambos said. "We still are not seeing the world we're in for."

David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada , said that instead of the air flow moving west to east, as it typically does, patterns are changing. Now there is more of a north-south interaction where warm air moves up from the south. However, the northern air can also dip further down, as we saw the past two weeks with unusually cold temperatures across the country. The change in air flow can cause the wild swings we are seeing more often.

In this case, warm air over Greenland and Norway is being pulled up to the Arctic, causing the unusual weather.

There was a similar event last winter, said Jim Overland, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the time they thought it was just a strange occurrence, but with a second one in just a year, it's left them wondering if this is what they can expect more often.

As for how long this will last, it's anyone's guess.

"It's not inconceivable that it could last another couple of months or the chaos that exists will wipe out the pattern in a week or so. We don't know which one. We think, though, long-term that we're loading the dice in terms of these warm and cold events."

Canada's North

Though it's far warmer than average, it's still cold.

"It's not like we're seeing Miami of the North up there: it's still dark, it's still cold by southern standards," Phillips said. 

Fortunately for Canada, that big warmth hasn't made it too far south. As of Friday morning it was still –21 C in Iqaluit and –33 C in Yellowknife. 

Southerners think it's just about whether we're going to have a white Christmas and skinny polar bears. But for northern people, it's a life or death situation.- David Phillips, Environment and Climate Change Canada 

Still, the Arctic is the fastest-warming place on the planet. And what's troubling is the effects the warming Arctic is having on the people who live there, Phillips said.

"It's affecting life there: they can't fish or hunt like they did; buildings are falling apart; windows don't fit in frames any more. It's all because the environment is changing. And of course, they're not the ones who caused it. In a way, they're the first victims of it.

"Southerners think it's just about whether we're going to have a white Christmas and skinny polar bears. But for northern people, it's a life or death situation."

Such anomalies will eventually have consequences for everyone else across the country, Phillips anticipates.

"What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic."


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at