The weather usually associated with winter in the eastern United States has not really taken hold this year. One of the reasons for this involves something called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).
This is a natural phenomenon that affects the position of the jet stream and weather patterns thousands of miles away. Based in the North Atlantic Ocean, it is driven by the pressure differences between the semi-permanent Icelandic Low and Azores/Bermuda High.
When the pressure difference between these two systems is low, the NAO is said to be in a negative phase. This means the winds of the jet stream are relatively relaxed and cold air from the north can spill down into the eastern US. The positive phase of NAO is characterized by a strong pressure difference between the two systems and a robust jet stream that keeps cold air bottled up in the northern latitudes.
Fluctuating between positive and negative, the strength and duration of these phases vary. This winter, however, the positive phase has been occurring more often and lasting longer than the negative phase. That is why the eastern US has been experiencing prolonged warm spells separated by a few brief blasts of cold air.
Unsurprisingly, this season’s soaring temperatures have sparked many important conversations about global warming. But as weather is extremely variable, no single warm day or week can be linked (at this time) to our changing climate. That said, anomalously warm events are happening more often, which is consistent with the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. 2016, for example, was this planet’s third consecutive warmest year on record.