Niagara Gazette

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June 25, 2013

94 in Alaska? Weather extremes tied to jet stream

Niagara Gazette — WASHINGTON — Lately, the jet stream isn't playing by the rules. Scientists say that big river of air high above Earth that dictates much of the weather for the Northern Hemisphere has been unusually erratic the past few years.

They blame it for everything from snowstorms in May to the path of Superstorm Sandy.

And last week, it was responsible for downpours that led to historic floods in Alberta, Canada, as well as record-breaking heat in parts of Alaska, experts say. The town of McGrath, Alaska, hit 94. Just a few weeks earlier, the same spot was 15 degrees.

The current heat wave in the Northeast is also linked. "While it's not unusual to have a heat wave in the east in June, it is part of the anomalous jet stream pattern that was responsible for the flooding in Alberta," Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis said Tuesday in an email.

The jet stream usually rushes rapidly from west to east in a mostly straight direction. But lately it's been wobbling and weaving like a drunken driver, wreaking havoc as it goes. The more the jet stream undulates north and south, the more changeable and extreme the weather.

It's a relatively new phenomenon that scientists are still trying to understand. Some say it's related to global warming; others say it's not.

In May, there was upside-down weather: Early California wildfires fueled by heat contrasted with more than a foot of snow in Minnesota. Seattle was the hottest spot in the nation one day, and Maine and Edmonton, Canada, were warmer than Miami and Phoenix.

Consider these unusual occurrences over the past few years:

• The winter of 2011-12 seemed to disappear, with little snow and record warmth in March. That was followed by the winter of 2012-13 when nor'easters seemed to queue up to strike the same coastal areas repeatedly.

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