As bitter cold continues to grip much of North America and helps spawn the fierce storm along the East Coast, the question arises: What’s the influence of climate change? Some scientists studying the connection between climate change and cold spells, which occur when cold Arctic air dips south, say that they may be related. But the importance of the relationship is not fully clear yet. The Arctic is not as cold as it used to be — the region is warming faster than any other — and studies suggest that this warming is weakening the jet stream, which ordinarily acts like a giant lasso, corralling cold air around the pole.
“There’s a lot of agreement that the Arctic plays a role, it’s just not known exactly how much,” said Marlene Kretschmer, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “It’s a very complex system.” The reason a direct connection between cold weather and global warming is still up for debate, scientists say, is that there are many other factors involved. Ocean temperatures in the tropics, soil moisture, snow cover, even the long-term natural variability of large ocean systems all can influence the jet stream.