Cold waves are getting milder in the northern midlatitudes

Geert Jan Van Oldenborgh, Eli Mitchell-Larson, Gabriel A. Vecchi, Hylke De Vries, Robert Vautard, Friederike Otto

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41 Scopus citations


The strong two-day cold wave in the midwestern United States in January 2019 again ignited the discussion as to whether cold waves are getting more severe or not as a result of Arctic amplification due to climate change. Assessing the evolution of cold waves in the northern hemisphere midlatitudes in the observations has been difficult because the variability of cold waves is large compared to anthropogenic warming. In order to detect changes in cold spells, two complementary ways to optimise the signal-to-noise ratio are employed: Multi-decadal series at individual stations, and for shorter time periods by using spatially aggregated measures. Global warming is now strong enough to make trends clear at individual stations when considering long enough (>50 yr) records of daily minimum and maximum temperature. Calculating the land area that has temperatures below the 1-in-10 year return value (defined over 1951-1980) enables us to investigate trends over a shorter time horizon. The long-term station data have strong decreases everywhere in the lowest minimum temperature. Warming trends in the lowest maximum temperature are smaller over most of the Northern Hemisphere, with dataset-dependent indications of possible negative trends in parts of the United States and Mexico. Considering the area experiencing cold waves over the last decades, the most notable feature is a sharp decline of this area since the 1980s. The natural variability is still so large that it is possible to arbitrarily select starting dates after the decline for which the trend is slightly positive in smaller regions like North America or Europe. However, these values are within uncertainties compatible with a steady decline and have differing starting dates in North America and Europe. An analysis of the entire northern midlatitudes confirms the steady decrease in severity and frequency of cold waves over the last decades in the observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number114004
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • Europe
  • North America
  • cold extremes
  • cold outbreaks
  • global warming
  • northern midlatitudes


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