If the Earth is warming, why am I so cold? It’s a fair question for many living throughout Europe and many parts of Asia and North America this winter. Throughout December, record lows have been slamming those parts of the world while Arctic temperatures have been as high as 20 degrees above normal. So is it global warming or global cooling?

First, let’s clarify: global warming means that the temperature averaged over the whole world is trending upward. That doesn’t mean that it will be warmer everywhere. Climate is the local weather conditions averaged over a long period. Climate change just means that the weather patterns experienced locally will be different than they used to be. In some places, it may be wetter, in others it may be drier; some regions may be warmer, others cooler. In the case of the Arctic, the temperatures are increasing.

U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate scientists are increasingly convinced that the record-breaking cold weather in Europe and parts of Asia and North America are likely to be a continuing trend as the Arctic climate continues to warm. It’s a series of cascading impacts that look something like this:

The Earth’s atmosphere is far from uniform in temperature and in pressure. The patterns of high and low pressure around the world have significant impact on the wind patterns. Normally, low pressure above the Arctic causes the wind patterns to essentially trap the cold air in the north – right where we like it. But the Arctic is experiencing warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. As a result, less ice cover in the summer allows the ocean to absorb more heat; throughout the fall and early winter, the heat is released into the atmosphere; the atmosphere warms and a dome of warm air and high pressure forms above the Arctic. High pressure above the Arctic creates wind patterns that allow Arctic air to escape to the south. The end result is, well, what we’ve seen all December: record highs in the Arctic and record lows in other parts of the world.

Here’s how NOAA describes it.

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