Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Spring Warming Trends

Break-up season is about to get under way across interior Alaska, as seen in the following map from NOAA's Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center; there is considerable open water on the upper reaches of the Tanana River, and the lower Chena River appears to be mostly open too.  This is supported by a webcam image from Fairbanks showing water pooling on or flowing over the ice.  The ice at Nenana is also deteriorating.

It is well known that break-up at Nenana has tended to occur earlier in recent decades, and of course this is directly related to the long-term warming trend.  Warmer spring weather has also caused trees to leaf out somewhat earlier in Fairbanks; we know this because the annual dates of "green-up" have been recorded since 1974 by visual observation of the east-facing slopes of Chena Ridge.  The chart below shows the green-up data along with the April-May mean temperature from Fairbanks airport.  Note that the high degree of variance prevents the trends from being statistically significant despite last year having the earliest green-up and warmest April-May period on record.

The chart below shows a corresponding analysis for break-up at Nenana, except that here I've plotted the April-May mean temperature for the Southeast Interior climate division (which shows a slightly higher correlation with break-up than temperatures in Fairbanks).  In this case the trends are marginally significant over this period of 43 years.

Here's a scatter plot of green-up and break-up dates versus April-May temperature, showing the rather high degree of correlation for both physical phenomena.  Spring temperatures aren't the only influence on timing of green-up and break-up, but they do explain most of the year-to-year variation.

In view of the high correlations, it's interesting to consider what the green-up and break-up dates can tell us about long-term temperature trends.  For example, if there was no long-term trend in green-up and break-up dates, then it would be difficult to believe that temperatures have risen, even if the thermometers have reported a warming trend; we might infer that urbanization trends or other factors were creating "artificial" warming in the temperature data.  However, the fact that green-up and break-up dates have advanced supports the warming trend observed by the thermometers.

We can take this idea a step farther by examining what temperature trend would be needed to optimize the correlation between temperature and green-up or break-up dates.  I performed this analysis by systematically applying small adjustments to the temperature trend and re-calculating the correlations each time; the results are shown below.  Note that the correlation coefficients are around -0.85 or so, with small variations depending on how the temperature trend is adjusted.

The result of the analysis is rather fascinating: for both Fairbanks green-up dates and Nenana break-up dates, the correlation with temperature is optimized when the reported warming trend is increased by 0.2°F/decade.  This reflects a change from +0.4 to +0.6 °F/decade in Fairbanks April-May temperatures and from +0.6 to +0.8 °F/decade in the Southeast Interior climate division.  This appears to suggest that the actual rate of warming, which is reflected in the dates of green-up and break-up, has been higher than reported by the thermometers at this time of year.

I'll look at break-up dates from some other rivers around Alaska in a subsequent post.  For now, I'd welcome comment from readers on the idea I'm proposing here: that physical date markers with long-term histories can be used to infer true temperature trends and thereby test whether historical weather data is adequately measuring the changes that have actually occurred.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Spring Progress

After a cold March (14°F below normal), Fairbanks has seen warmer than normal weather overall this month so far (4°F above normal).  Recent days have been relatively cool, however; the high temperature was only 35°F on Wednesday, compared to a normal of 47°F.

Total thawing degree days (accumulation of mean daily temperatures above freezing, in Fahrenheit) are up to 48 as of yesterday, which is the lowest for the date since 2011 and far behind last year's near-record pace.  However, we're actually only a couple of days behind the normal pace for thawing.  The snowpack is diminishing steadily and river ice is starting to look a bit rotten.

The chart below shows daily statewide maximum and minimum temperatures for the last several months according to data from NOAA's ACIS tool.  I've excluded Snotel stations, and for maximum temperatures I also removed RAWS sites because of their known warm bias in sunny weather.  It's striking to see the dramatically higher variance of statewide daily minima compared to maxima; this is largely because the warmest parts of the state in the cold season have highly maritime climates and therefore low temperature variance in comparison to the much colder continental areas.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Snowy Weeks in Fairbanks

Rick T. here with a post about snowy weeks in Fairbanks.

Interior Alaska has a long snow season, easily from late September to early May, and occasionally even longer. The average number of days between the first measurable snow in the fall and last measurable snow in the spring is a bit shy of seven months (202 days). But of course, the snowfall is not evenly distributed during that time. On the seasonal timescale, early winter is, on average, much the snowiest time of year, while March and April are the climatological dry season. On shorter time scales, depending on what's happening with the flow aloft, we go through days or weeks that are drier and then snowier. However, over the years it sure seemed to me that a significant fraction of the seasonal snowfall comes in a relatively short window. Is that so, or is it just my back complaining from too much shoveling? To address that question, below is a plot of the maximum 7-day snowfall as a percentage of the winter total, i.e how much of the winter's snowfall fell in the snowiest week (any 7-day period) for the Weather Bureau/NWS era of observations (since 1929-30).

As I expected, a fair chunk of the total snowfall does indeed fall in short stretches. The 88 winter average is that almost 22 percent of the seasonal total falls in some seven day period. Although not statistically meaningful, it is interesting that the two highest percentages have occurred since 2010 and that there have been no winters since the early 1990s with unusually low (compared to the long term average) weekly snow percentages.

A surprise to me was the lack of correlation between the total seasonal snowfall and snowiest week. In the graphic, each year's dot is sized according to the total seasonal snowfall: bigger dots indicate higher seasonal totals. Just eyeballing it you can see the size of the dots varies randomly above and below the average line (correlation only +0.03, effectively zero). I expected that low snowfall winters might tend to have higher percentages fall in a few days, but this analysis says otherwise.

———Update April 17, 2017

Inspired by Richard's question on extremes of timing of the snowiest week, here's a histogram of the date of the the snowiest week by half-months. Note that there is no well defined peak: the late November spike is likely no more than random variability.
And for completeness, here's a histogram of the amount of snow that fell in the snowiest week each winter. Not surprisingly, there is a concentration of values around a foot but with a long tail of higher amounts.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Arctic Update

It's been more than two months since my last update on basin-wide Arctic warmth, but not much has changed; even the remarkable cold spell in Arctic Canada in early March didn't put a dent in the overall high-latitude temperature anomaly.  According to the mean temperature from my set of 19 long-term surface observing sites, both February and March were more than 4°C warmer than the 1981-2010 normal.  The coolest of the last 6 months relative to normal was December, at "only" 3.4°C above normal.

This winter's November-March average temperature was the highest since at least 1971 for the 19 stations, as shown in the chart below.  Remarkably, Vize Island (on the northern side of the Kara Sea) was more than 10°C above normal for the 5-month average.  To get a sense of how enormous this anomaly is, consider that 10°C is greater than the difference between the record coldest and record warmest November-March periods in Fairbanks.

If we look at the temperature in terms of standard deviations away from normal, the warmth really hasn't taken a break since the remarkable events of January 2016.  Monthly mean temperatures now seem to be remaining near levels that were very unusual only a few years ago.

Not surprisingly, March average Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite era according to the NSIDC, and estimated sea ice volume is also well below previous records.

Interestingly, however, the Danish Meteorological Institute estimates that the Greenland ice sheet has gained considerably more mass than usual so far this cold season.  This was probably caused by the unusual North Atlantic circulation pattern, as low pressure and storminess have been more dominant than usual near southern Greenland.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Chena Basin Snowpack

The April 1 snowpack update from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) shows the cumulative effect of a very snowy winter in the east-central interior, as the snowpack is considerably greater than normal in the vicinity of Fairbanks - see below.  Fairbanks airport has received 83.1" of snow in total, the most since 1992.  However, most of the measuring sites to the south of the Tanana River did not do nearly as well, and it appears that nowhere else in the state saw such a snowy winter in relation to normal.

The chart below shows the 1981-2010 normal snow water equivalent for the SNOTEL sites near Fairbanks, revealing that peak water content is typically reached in mid to late April, depending on elevation.  The higher sites receive more snow in total owing both to orographic forcing and to the longer period with sufficiently low temperatures; so Munson Ridge, at 3100' elevation, tends to build snowpack all the way until the end of April.  In 1982, Munson Ridge was still reporting snow on June 13!

Friday, April 7, 2017

North Slope Winter Warmth

Yesterday NOAA released the U.S. climate division monitoring data for March, and the results for Alaska show a bit of a puzzle.  I was expecting to see significantly below-normal March temperatures for most of the state and a significant warm anomaly for the North Slope district.  However, it turns out that the climate division data show the North Slope division with a -3.0°F anomaly relative to the 1981-2010 normal, and -1.3°F relative to the 1925-2000 normal (as shown in the map below - click to enlarge; note that the normal is 1925-2000, not 1901-2000 as stated in the legend).

In contrast, the graphic below (courtesy of Rick Thoman) shows that Barrow, Deadhorse, and Umiat all saw temperatures in the upper two-thirds of the 1981-2010 distribution; the month of March was significantly warmer than normal at these sites and almost certainly at many other locations north of the Brooks Range.

Here's a time series of the March mean temperature in the North Slope district according to the climate division data:

Oddly the March 2017 temperature is well below the March 2016 temperature, even though Barrow and Umiat were warmer this year than last year in March.  Looking back over the past 5 months (November-March), the same discrepancy is observed: the climate division data indicate that this winter was colder than 2015-2016, but in fact this winter was the warmest on record at Barrow and appears to have been warmer than last winter at Umiat too (although there is a fair amount of missing data).

The two charts below show a closer comparison between the two winters for Barrow, Deadhorse, and Umiat.  The January through March mean temperature was slightly cooler this year, but November and December were much warmer this winter than last winter.  Notice the +54°F daily temperature anomaly at Umiat on January 2 of this year: with a high temperature of 38°F and a low of 29°F, this is the largest departure from normal of any day in Umiat's history.  The 1981-2010 normal for Umiat on January 2 is -20°F, the lowest of any station in Alaska for that date.

What can we conclude from all of this?  First, it's plain to see that climate monitoring is a challenge in the data sparse regions of northern Alaska; different analysis methods can give very different answers even for something as "simple" as year-to-year temperature changes.  It's possible that NOAA's methodology for the climate division calculations allowed this winter's North Slope result to be influenced by colder temperatures south of the Brooks Range and outside the boundary of the district; this would be unfortunate, but these kinds of issues are not uncommon in the world of near-realtime climate monitoring.

An interesting question to consider is, was this the warmest winter on record for the North Slope as a whole?  According to the climate division data it wasn't even close, but my cursory analysis of the numbers from Barrow, Deadhorse and Umiat suggest it may well have been so.  A more thorough investigation, including a careful accounting for missing data, and additional observing sites, would be required to say anything with greater confidence.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Sub-Seasonal Forecast Skill

I'll be traveling for the next few days, but some readers may be interested in a quick glance at some results I found recently with regard to sub-seasonal temperature forecasts for Fairbanks.  Sub-seasonal forecasts are made about 2 to 6 weeks in advance and therefore deal with prediction time scales in between more traditional medium-range weather forecasts (~5-10 days ahead) and seasonal forecasts (a month or more in advance).

Sub-seasonal forecasting has long been regarded as a very challenging problem, but increasing demand is driving research and investment in this area; the National Academy of Sciences published a report last year on strategies for research into improving sub-seasonal and seasonal forecasts.  I'll be giving a talk in Anchorage on May 2 at the Climate Prediction Applications Science Workshop; hence the new research reported here.

The result that's interesting to me is illustrated in the chart below, which shows a simple measure of performance (R-squared correlation) for forecasts of weekly mean temperature anomaly (departure from normal) in Fairbanks for week 2 (days 8-14 mean), week 3 (days 15-21 mean), and week 4 (days 22-28 mean).  I've taken the ensemble mean of forecasts from the U.S. CFSv2 model and the European (ECMWF) model, and then used a simple mean of the two models.  Generally the ECMWF model is superior to the CFSv2, but the average of the two models is better than either model by itself.

It's interesting and intriguing to see that the forecast performance is considerably better in spring and autumn than in winter; I would not have expected this, because large-scale flow anomalies are largest in winter, and I would expect predictability to be higher as well.  It seems possible that unusual boundary condition forcing (i.e. sea surface temperature and snow/ice cover anomalies - which are a key source of model skill) have greater influence in spring and autumn relative to the magnitude of random/chaotic variations in the flow.  It's also possible that the near-permanent surface-based temperature inversion in winter in Fairbanks makes long-range forecasts particularly difficult in that season.

The best month of the year for sub-seasonal temperature forecasts in Fairbanks is April, and especially at weeks 3 and 4 relative to other times of the year.  I'm quite impressed, actually, that forecasts issued in April capture nearly 50% of the variance at week 3 and almost 30% of the variance at week 4.  The skill is nowhere close to this for most of the rest of the year, although October is also fairly good at week 3.

So what are the current forecasts showing?  As of yesterday morning, when Thursday's extended-range ECMWF forecast came out, the multi-model ensemble is showing warmer than normal conditions persisting into the second week of April, and there is a suggestion of ongoing warmth over southern and western Alaska into weeks 3 and 4, but the signal is not particularly amplified.

A warm outlook is consistent with the CPC's forecast for April - see below - but given the very warm start to the month, it would be surprising to see anything else in the one-month forecast.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

End in Sight

A major warm-up is under way at last across the eastern interior, as the flow has finally gone around to the south; Eagle is up to 46°F this evening, and Fairbanks is expected to break the freezing mark by Friday at the latest.  This will prevent a significant record from being broken: Fairbanks has never seen a March without the temperature rising above freezing at some point in the month.  The closest was in 1997, when the month's high temperature was only 34°F.

[Update March 31: the temperature has risen above freezing at Fairbanks airport as of 11:30am AKDT.  This is the 3rd latest appearance of the first above-freezing temperature in March.  In 2006 it occurred at 1pm on March 31, and in 2007 the thaw began at 2pm on March 31.]

The last time that above-freezing conditions were observed either at the surface or in the air column above Fairbanks was on February 26, so the period of having a continuously sub-freezing atmospheric column will end at about 30 days.  The longest such period this winter was 46 days, from mid-November through December 30, and this was considerably longer than any of the past 3 winters.  The chart below shows the length and ending date of each winter's longest stretch of sub-freezing conditions (both surface and aloft) back to 1948-49.  (Click to enlarge the chart.)

It's a funny coincidence that 4 of the last 5 winters have seen the longest sub-freezing spell come to an end very close to the end of the year (December 27-31).  Reader Eric first pointed out the similarity in timing of cold and warm spells between this winter and last (see here), and in fact a distinct warm-up can be identified near the turn of the year in each of the past 5 winters.  We'll call it the New Year's Thaw and I'll look at it more closely in a future post.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cold and Dry

Wintry cold continues to hold on tenaciously across interior Alaska, at least during the nighttime hours.  Here we are after the spring equinox, and temperatures in the -30s Fahrenheit are still occurring overnight in the usual cold spots.  This morning the Kanuti Lake SCAN site reported -34°F, and the Salcha RAWS hit -31°F.

In Fairbanks-land, Goldstream Creek reported -27°F this morning, and the airport thermometer registered -18°F.  Remarkably, every night but one so far this month has seen a low of -13°F (-25°C) or colder at Fairbanks airport.  The 22 nights at -15°F or colder is tied with 2007 for most on record in the month of March, and the NWS expects another one tonight.

Here's a chart showing the last two weeks of 2m temperature measurements from UAF's Smith Lake site: sub-minus 20 every night, and daily temperature traces indicative of generally clear skies.  So far this month more than two-thirds of the sky condition measurements at Fairbanks airport have indicated either clear skies or "few" clouds (25% coverage or less).

Total snowfall this month in Fairbanks has amounted to only 1.7", but this in itself is not very unusual: the 1981-2010 median is only 3.2" for the month.  April is usually even drier, with a normal liquid-equivalent precipitation of only 0.1".  March and April are the driest months of the year, climatologically speaking, in Fairbanks, and a few days ago Brian showed that this is also the driest time of year across most of interior northwestern North America:

Why is late winter generally a sunny and very dry time in interior Alaska?  Part of the reason is that the air is very dry, and that's because evaporation from the earth's surface is much reduced in the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year: ocean surface temperatures are near their coolest, ice cover is near its peak on both oceans and fresh water bodies, and forests are still mostly dormant.  The lifetime of water vapor in the atmosphere is only about 9 days on average, so precipitation must decrease in tandem with evaporation rates on a hemispheric scale.

The graphic below shows an estimate of how the total atmospheric water vapor content (precipitable water) varies through the year in the Northern Hemisphere: the values shown in the chart are the west-east averages for each month and each line of latitude.  It's interesting to see the earlier summer peak of vapor content in the Arctic compared to the tropics, as solar heating drops off more rapidly in late summer at high latitudes.

Here's a similar chart, but for a single line of longitude running approximately through Fairbanks (148°W).  Over Alaska and the oceans to the south, the lowest normal value of precipitable water occurs in March.

A second reason for dry weather in Fairbanks in March and April is that there's simply not much storminess to generate clouds and precipitation.  The absence of fronts and storms is a more localized factor than hemispheric dryness, because other parts of the hemisphere (indeed of the USA) have plenty of storminess and wet weather in spring.

In the vicinity of Alaska, storminess is reduced in the spring because the North Pacific Ocean is cool, leading to reduced north-south temperature gradients and lower potential energy for storms.  Another reason is that high pressure tends to build over the Arctic basin in late winter and spring.  The chart below show the time-latitude cross-section of sea-level pressure along 148°W; notice the prominent high pressure zone around 75-80°N from February through April.  At the latitude of Fairbanks (65°N) the pressure is lowest in October and then increases into late winter; and while there's much more to the weather pattern than just MSLP, this does illustrate the overall tendency towards generally more clear and dry weather as the winter advances.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Arctic to Mid-Latitude Connections

Yesterday the scientific journal Nature published a brief but helpful summary of the state of research concerning the linkage between climate changes in the Arctic and mid-latitudes.  For context, bear in mind that a popular hypothesis in recent years has been the idea that enhanced warming in the Arctic slows the jet stream and therefore creates more blocking and extreme weather at mid-latitudes.  However, the real world may not have such a simple chain of causality; the article emphasizes how much there is yet to learn on this subject.  Here's a key quote:

"...the connection is not one-way from the Arctic to the mid-latitudes but also works in reverse, and observations and climate models give differing estimates of the extent to which mid-latitude climate is influenced by Arctic warming".  Also: "we have a poor grasp of how much of the Arctic amplification is caused by warm and moist transport from the mid-latitudes to the Arctic".

Update: see comments below for links to the workshop website, containing much more information.

Monday, March 20, 2017

New Blog

Regular visitors may be interested to learn that our own reader Eric has started his own blog on interior Alaska's weather and climate; I expect I will link to it occasionally or even repost some material.  Take a look here:

On another note, the webcam from Dawson (Yukon) reveals that the Yukon River has at long last frozen over completely next to the town.  There's been no lack of cold weather this winter, but an unusual ice jam upstream allowed an open lead to remain in the middle of the river throughout the entire winter until now.  It looks like the ice road to West Dawson may finally have opened just in time for the onset of spring.

March 1:

March 7:

March 17:

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Winter Hangs On

The sun is shining for long hours in central Alaska now, but temperatures have remained decidedly wintry of late.  This morning the thermometer registered -25°F at Fairbanks airport, which is where it has been on average for the first 18 days of the month (for overnight lows).  The overall mean temperature so far this month is 17°F below normal.

The 500mb height anomaly map for March 1-16 reveals the pattern that we would expect to find in association with unusual cold in much of Alaska: a big ridge over the Bering Sea and relatively low heights over Southeast Alaska.
The sea-level pressure map (below) shows the surface-level ridge extending across the interior into western Canada, providing the clear sky conditions that are conducive to enhanced overnight cooling.  The ridge has also shut off the moist westerly flow and brought an end to the snowy pattern.

It's interesting to examine the subtle contrast between this month's pressure pattern and that of November through February, see below.  For most of the winter the ridge was centered farther to the south, and the Arctic trough extended down to the Chukchi Sea, so the flow into Alaska was both wetter and warmer (relative to normal).
The map below shows the average MSLP pattern during 10 strong La Niña winters; notice the strong similarity to this winter's pattern.  This is somewhat remarkable to me, because this winter's La Niña episode was very weak in intensity - and yet the circulation pattern over the Aleutians strongly resembled a classical La Niña pattern.  This seems unlikely to be a coincidence, and La Niña probably bears some of the blame for the current cold as well.

For completeness, the maps below show the typical El Niño pattern and the MSLP anomaly from last winter (2015-2016).

Monday, March 13, 2017

North Pacific Blob Update

Hot off the press this evening: a new post on the Alaska "Blob Tracker" blog, showing interesting similarities of recent events with those that followed the 1997-1998 El Niño:

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cold Nights

Abnormally cold conditions have returned to interior Alaska again, with widespread -40s at night in the past week or so, and a few -50°F readings.  The Salcha RAWS hit -51°F last night and has fallen below -40°F every day this month except one.  Here's a sample of the locations that dropped below -40° last night:

In Fairbanks the minimum temperature of -39°F this morning is the coldest observed so late in the season since 1964, although -37°F was seen on March 15 only 2 years ago.  Assuming today's high temperature is 0°F or less, which appears likely, this will go down as the coldest day of the winter in terms of standard deviations below normal.  But of course the contrast between today and the January 17-19 cold snap is like night and day: the number of hours of sunshine has doubled since then.

Here's an updated chart of daily mean temperature anomalies for Fairbanks; the mean temperature since November 1 is now 1.7°F below the 1981-2010 normal.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Record Cold in Arctic Canada

[Update March 5] The 1000-500mb thickness dropped still further today, reaching 4619m at 1200 GMT over westernmost Victoria Island.  This appears to be the coldest air mass since March 1996 in the general vicinity (90-180°W).

Also of note: yesterday's all-time low temperature at Mould Bay is the first all-time low at a long-term observing site north of 70°N since March 18, 2008, when Danmarkshavn in northeast Greenland set its all-time low of -49°F.  (This is based on NOAA's GHCN data, which is reasonably but not entirely comprehensive.) [End of Update]

In recent months and years we've often discussed the extraordinary and persistent warmth around the Arctic Ocean, so it makes a change to consider an episode of extreme cold for once.  This morning the temperature dropped to -66°F at Mould Bay on Prince Patrick Island, which is north of Banks Island and is the westernmost of Canada's Queen Elizabeth Islands; Mould Bay is at a latitude of 76°N.  I've marked the location on a couple of the maps below.

Remarkably, today's low temperature of -66°F sets a new all-time record low for Mould Bay, which has more-or-less continuous weather records since 1948.  The previous record was -65°F, in 1967 and 1987.  The last time -60°F was observed at Mould Bay was in 2004.  Here's a chart of the minimum temperature each winter since 1948-49; note that some winters are missing (including 2003-2004) because the daily data are incomplete in those years.

It's interesting to note that today's cold at Mould Bay is not far from an all-time record low for all of Canada's high Arctic region (north of 70°N).  According to GHCN data, only two locations, Eureka and Lake Hazen (both on Ellesmere Island) have been colder, at -68°F and -69°F respectively.

The circulation feature responsible for the cold weather today is a vortex of extremely cold air that has been hovering over the Queen Elizabeth Islands for several days.  Back on Monday the coldest air was over Ellesmere Island, but the vortex has drifted southwestward and the cold has intensified considerably in the past few days.  Bear in mind that of course there is still very little solar heating at this time of year north of 75°N - the sun rose in Mould Bay only 3 weeks ago and reached only 8° above the horizon today.

The map below shows the GFS model's estimate of 850mb temperature today at 1800 GMT or about noon local time in Mould Bay, when the surface temperature was reported as -64°F.  A substantial area of sub-minus 40° air at 850mb is evident from Prince Patrick Island southward over half of Banks Island; this is an extremely cold air mass.

Here's a map of 1000-500mb thickness at the same time; the thickness is an excellent measure of the mean temperature in the lower half of the atmosphere.  The gridpoint minimum of 4634m is extremely low by historical standards; according to NCEP reanalysis data, this is the lowest 1000-500mb thickness value anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere since March 2011.  For comparison, and again according to reanalysis data, the all-time lowest 1000-500mb thickness value over Alaska was 4598m on 27 January 1989 (towards the end of that month's deep cold snap).

The map below shows the reanalysis-era minimum in 1000-500mb thickness; we see that most of the Arctic basin has seen thickness values below 4650m at one time or another.  However, the second map below shows that only a few selected areas have seen sub-4650m thickness since January 2000.  In other words, the kind of cold we're seeing today in northwest Canada has become rare in the past couple of decades; this is a really extreme and notable event.  It's remarkable and very interesting to see this event occur at the end of what has otherwise been a winter of record-breaking warmth in the Arctic.