In the past year the climate in the Arctic has at times bordered on the absurd. Temperatures were 30 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit above average in some places during the recent Christmas week. Through November the area of ice-covered ocean in the region reached a record low in seven of 11 months—an unprecedented stretch. More important, perhaps, the difference between Arctic temperatures and those across the midlatitudes of North America, Europe and Asia during 2016 was the smallest ever seen.
That narrowing gap is important to note because it seems to be driving extreme weather in the midlatitudes, from heat waves and droughts to heavy snowfalls. Why is the Arctic so crazy lately, and how strong is the connection to bad weather to its south, where so many people live? Scientific American asked Jennifer Francis, who is a research professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University and has investigated Arctic climate change and its links to weather worldwide since 1994.
Behold the hyolith — a bizarre Cambrian-period creature that dwelt on the ocean floor alongside other armored invertebrates like trilobites more than 500 million years ago. Its body was encased in a pair of shells that resembled an ice cream cone with a lid like a trap door. Two tusklike spines protruded from the soft tissue near the hinge, and on top of its mouth was a row of fluttering tentacles.
Since its discovery in the 19th century, the hyolith has puzzled paleontologists. Some thought it was a mollusk, like a snail or clam. Others said it belonged to its own group of animals.
Joseph Moysiuk, an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, thinks he has solved the mystery.