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Snow storm snarls Midwest: Is US facing another extreme winter?

A giant snow storm wreaking havoc on the Midwest is sending blasts of frigid air plunging toward the Southeast. Sound familiar? The atmospheric dynamics are still somewhat of a mystery.

By Staff writer / December 13, 2010

A man walks across the Colfax Avenue bridge during a snow- storm on Monday in South Bend, Ind.

Marcus Marter/South Bend Tribune/AP

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The driving early snowstorms and piercing cold winds blasting the Midwest, South, and East Coast – throwing commutes, air traffic, and football schedules into chaos – are the result of poorly understood atmospheric dynamics that may upset predictions of a milder winter for the eastern half of the US.

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Scientists at the University of Wisconsin in Madison are among those trying to understand the mysterious interplay between Pacific and North Atlantic weather phenomena that threaten to dunk the Eastern US into a second year in a row of 1970s-style blizzards and cold snaps.

"At this point, this winter looks similar to last winter," says Jonathan Martin, an atmospheric scientist at Wisconsin. "The next question is, why does it look similar, and we're currently not in a position to say definitely what's going on. There are some interrelationships between big pieces of circulation anomaly that feed into one another, including an anomalous pattern over Greenland that's tied into convection in the tropical Pacific Ocean."

Scientists speculate that heat released from storms racing up the US East Coast toward the Labrador Sea may be feeding the so-called North Atlantic Oscillation – nicknamed "The Greenland Block" – in ways that are not yet understood. The region of high pressure over Greenland has pushed huge troughs of Canadian air into the US, causing the fifth biggest snow storm on record in Minneapolis over the weekend and now threatening Orlando, Fla., with 20 degree F temperatures.

The atmospheric upset has had the opposite effect on parts of the West, where cities like Long Beach, Calif., and Phoenix saw record high temperatures Monday.

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