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A man uses an umbrella to shield himself from the falling snow during a late season winter storm in March 2014 in Washington, D.C.
The winter of 2013-2014 may have been unusually long, cold and harsh compared to recent years but we shouldn't get used to it, a new study says. That's because milder winters with fewer extremes may be more likely in the future thanks to the rapid warming of the Arctic.
Published Sunday in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, the study says that despite fears that global warming might lead to more cold weather extremes in places like North America – much-discussed during this winter's "polar vortex" – we're actually seeing the number of extremely cold weather days fall, not rise.
James Screen, the study's author and a climate researcher at the U.K.-based University of Exeter who is currently in the middle of a multi-year project on the impact of Arctic climate change on Earth's mid-latitude regions, said the winds coming out of the north are changing.
That's due to a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification, which is occurring because the Arctic is warming at a much faster pace than Earth's lower latitudes – places like the United States and much of Europe and Asia – thanks to shrinking snow and ice cover.
Monthly September ice extent for 1979 to 2013 shows a decline of 13.7 percent per decade.
Screen found that winds that blow out of the Arctic from the north – they're responsible for the blasts of cold air that bring winter weather extremes in the U.S. – are warming up faster than winds that blow warmer air in from the south.
That reduces the difference in temperature between the two, which leads to less extreme weather and fewer extremely cold days, Screen told Mashable. "You're kind of taking the edge off of your cold extremes," he said.
“Cold days tend to occur when the wind is blowing from the north, bringing Arctic air south into the mid-latitudes," Screen added in an interview with the International Business Times. "Because the Arctic air is warming so rapidly these cold days are now less cold than they were in the past."
Screen studied records of wind temperature over the past 35 years and found that while both northerly and southerly winds had warmed, northerly winds had warmed at nearly twice the rate of southerly winds during that time period.
The warming trend also was most pronounced in winter, the study notes, and not in the spring or summer. Current temperature trends and greenhouse gas emissions levels mean that we can only expect more Arctic amplification in the future, which will likely mean fewer and fewer cold extremes like this year's.
“Autumn and winter days are becoming warmer on average, and less variable from day-to-day," said Screen in a University of Exeter news release. "Both factors reduce the chance of extremely cold days.”
MORE: Photographer Explores Changes in the Arctic
As Far North As Humans Can Go
Photographer Randall Hyman joined the crew of the Lance, a Norwegian research ship, in late July and early August 2013. 'I went with them as far north as we could go until you couldn't go any farther north. We had to go a lot farther north than they used to go because the ice is receding so far.' (Copyright Randall Hyman Photography)