Jennifer Francis

JenniferFrancis-web-248x300_170117_161906Wisconsin is no stranger to bizarre weather throughout the year, and since April is ‘Earth month’ at ALNC it seemed fitting to shine a spotlight on someone who has spent her life trying to explain the connection between weather patterns and global warming. Our April featured scientist, Jennifer Francis, is a professor at Rutgers University’s department of Marine and Coastal Sciences. She is considered by many to be one of the top climate scientists and she specializes in climate change in the Arctic.

After receiving her PhD in atmospheric sciences from the University of Washington in 1994, Francis’ early career focused on the Arctic itself, especially the transfer of heat energy (from the sun) and moisture between the surface and atmosphere. In a 2012 Yale article, Francis explains that  1.3 million square miles of sea ice has disappeared in the last three decades–an area roughly twice the size of Alaska! This melted ice is returned to the oceans and has a number of implications for both our global climate and our local weather patterns. These bigger scale implications are precisely what Francis has devoted her recent time to–and she’s made a name for herself doing it. Namely, Francis proposes that a rapidly warming Arctic (called Arctic amplification) is altering the jet stream, a West to East air current that causes most of our weather patterns.

The jet stream is largely the result of differences in air temperature and moisture, with faster jet streams being caused by more extreme  differences. Francis explains this phenomena in the video below and details how this new wavier pattern picks up warm air and moisture from lower latitudes and carries it back up into the Arctic, where it melts more ice — this is called a feedback loop.

Ultimately, this causes extreme weather to stick around longer in winter and the rest of the year. Francis attributes this wavy jet stream to the long California drought followed by record rain in 2016/2017 as well as prolonged winters in Europe and recent record snowfall in the Northeastern United States.

NASA visualization of a very wavy northern hemisphere jet stream

The important message here, and the message that Jennifer Francis has devoted more time to in recent years, is that seemingly minor changes in our global atmosphere can have a domino effect on other things and ultimately have profound effects on our daily weather—in both colder and warmer ways! Come visit us at ALNC this month to explore how the land, water, and atmosphere are affected by human activity and see for yourself how our planet’s weather works and what you can do to at home to conserve energy and resources!

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