Siberia Is Being Clobbered With Snow Already, and That Could Mean a Harsher U.S. Winter Ahead

Jonathan Belles
Published: November 3, 2016

Siberia is known to be one of the coldest places on the planet, but exactly how cold and snowy it gets each year has big ramifications elsewhere on the globe.

In North America, a more snow-covered Russia means that colder air will have an easier time harvesting in Siberia and departing for our continent's heartland. Early in the calendar year, the air coming from Siberia can be cold enough to bring snow to even more southern reaches of the United States if the pattern sets up correctly.

The Extent of Snow Cover

Snow is covering the ground across most of Russia, including all of Siberia – likely the greatest extent of snow cover since 1998. Below is the current snow cover in northern Asia as of Oct. 31.

Some locations, including Sakha in east-central Russia, are seeing their snowiest winter on record, with most of the snow season yet to come. Nearly 10 feet of snow fell in some places in Siberia in just three days, according to the Government of Sakha.

Snow cover in Russia can vary quite a bit from year to year and tends to oscillate over longer periods. You can notice here on snow cover maps dating back to 1998 from NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information that there has been a general increase in snow cover each year since 2013.

(MORE: Current U.S. Snow Cover)

Snow (white) and ice (yellow) cover in Asia on October 31, 1998 - 2016.

"In the fall across Eurasia but mostly Siberia the advance of snow cover leads to the formation of the Siberian High. If the advance of snow cover is rapid this leads to a stronger and colder Siberian high" explains Judah Cohen, Ph.D., Director of Seasonal Forecasting, Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), a Verisk Analytics Business. 

"High pressure is expansive by nature, so with more extensive snow cover the cold dome of air associated with the Siberian [High] starts to expand beyond Siberia during winter."

Siberian Air and Its Impacts on U.S. Weather

In the Lower 48 states, our arctic and polar air outbreaks come from Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

"Siberia is the refrigerator of the Northern Hemisphere where air masses are chilled first over Siberia and then exported to other regions of the hemisphere, " says Cohen. 

It takes some sort of weather system or ripple in the upper-level flow to nudge the jet stream (or polar vortex) northward in Asia and southward across North America to really open up the Polar Express. This is a home run for weather systems and allows cold air to get into the U.S.

"Once the polar vortex starts to wobble it is vulnerable to absorbing even more energy from the troposphere and the polar vortex becomes increasingly disturbed or perturbed," according to Cohen.

"When this happens the almost perfect circular motion of the polar vortex becomes more meandering and the nearly perfect west to east flow now becomes also south to north. Once this happens, warm air from lower latitudes rushes the North Pole and cold air previously confined to the Arctic spills out to lower latitudes."

(MORE: Shifting Polar Vortex Could Mean More Cold Spells, Study Says)

But there's a caveat: if the jet stream does not take the path as shown below and, say, the jet stream comes in from the West Coast and the Pacific, then warmer, more moderate air can be expected.

Near perfect set up for cold air outbreaks in the United States. Repeated outbreaks can lead to wintry precipitation farther south.

Snow cover,  particularly long-lived snow cover, breeds colder air that can travel. If that air travels over continuously cold ground, such as ice or snow, it has very little chance to moderate, or warm, as it moves away from its source, especially if there is cold ground ahead and beneath it.

(MORE: Top 10 Locations With the Most Days of Snow)

As snow builds in the northern latitudes of North America and Asia in a given fall and winter, cold air typically has an easier time flooding our country. Following repeated and frequent cold air outbreaks, the ground generally cools and cooler air is better able to penetrate farther south. This could lead to snow and ice in more southerly latitudes.

The more cold ground there is, the more likely air will be chilled as it heads down the Polar Express.

According to Dr. Ming Cai, a professor at Florida State University, and his forecast team, numerous cold air outbreaks are likely through the end of November both in Eurasia and North America.

(MORE: November Temperature and Precipitation Outlook)

MORE: Oymyakon, Siberia, Russia


The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.