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The Jet Stream: How Its Response To Enhanced Arctic Warming Is Driving More Extreme Weather

By Joe Romm on May 30, 2013 at 5:19 pm

"The Jet Stream: How Its Response To Enhanced Arctic Warming Is Driving More Extreme Weather"

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We’ve written extensively about how how arctic ice loss is driving extreme weather. We’ve known for a long time that global warming melts highly reflective white ice and snow, which is replaced by the dark blue sea or dark land, both of which absorb far more sunlight and hence far more solar energy.

That is one of the many sources of “polar amplification,” whereby the Arctic warms much faster than other parts of the globe. Now it seems increasingly clear that the amplified Arctic warming in turn amplifies extreme weather by weakening the jetstream (see video here).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explained in an October 2012 news release:

The effects of Arctic amplification will increase as more summer ice retreats over coming decades. Enhanced warming of the Arctic affects the jet stream by slowing its west-to-east winds and by promoting larger north-south meanders in the flow. Predicting those meanders and where the weather associated with them will be located in any given year, however, remains a challenge.

The researchers say that with more solar energy going into the Arctic Ocean because of lost ice, there is reason to expect more extreme weather events, such as heavy snowfall, heat waves, and flooding in North America and Europe but these will vary in location, intensity, and timescales.

Dr. Jennifer A. Francis of Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences explains, “As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, we expect an increased probability of extreme weather events across the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, where billions of people live.”

This effect is all but certain to become even larger in the next decade or two (see Experts Warn ‘Near Ice-Free Arctic In Summer’ In A Decade If Volume Trends Continue). So all of us need to understand the jetstream better

John Mason at Skeptical Science has put together an extensive, must-read primer, “A Rough Guide to the Jet Stream: what it is, how it works and how it is responding to enhanced Arctic warming.” This figure-filled piece also explains key terms we’ll all be hearing more about in the coming years, including the “North Atlantic Oscillation” and “blocking ridge.”

He concludes, “Evidence is mounting to indicate that the response of the jet stream to” polar amplification “has been to tend to slow down and meander more, with a greater tendency to develop blocking patterns,” which in turn prolong and intensify all sorts of extreme weather events. We are only just beginning to sort out the implications of this for key global concerns, such as food security.

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22 Responses to The Jet Stream: How Its Response To Enhanced Arctic Warming Is Driving More Extreme Weather

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    If the loss of polar ice ever starts bothering you and your students, I have a thermal transfer device that needs prototyping and then testing in someone’s home freezer. Then the next step up for the prototype goes in a school cafeteria’s walk-in freezer. Then we develop the model that will keep your local hockey pond frozen for two extra weeks in the winter. Then we move on to the big models that might keep the Southern Ocean around the West Antarctic Ice Sheet cold enough to keep half the WAIS from popping and and exploding into the ocean. Finally, we’d need millions of the devices to restore the Arctic Ocean’s ice pack to its normal multiyear depth.

    They are environmentally friendly to the under-ice biome, and they’re far cheaper than even one super-hurricane landing on Miami or Tampa. Insurance companies would foot the whole bill if they realized how much cash it would save them.

  2. M Tucker says:

    Yep, that Rough Guide was great.

    We have a blocking high off the east coast slowing the passage of the current batch of storms in the Midwest. Iowa has been hammered by rain. That single state represents close to 20% of the US corn crop and a large chunk of the soybeans.

    Des Moines Register 5/29/13

    Seemingly endless rain in the past week has made this one of the wettest springs in history for the metro area and state. The metro’s precipitation record could be broken with more rain forecast for the coming days, according to one meteorologist.

    The 13.62 inches of rain Des Moines has received in April and May have made it the fifth-wettest such period in history, according to meteorologist David Pearson of the National Weather Service.

    Post Bulletin 5/29/13

    The Des Moines and Cedar rivers posted historical record-high stream flows and levees were breached in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Damage was estimated at $10 billion statewide, making it the worst disaster in Iowa history.

    Agriculture.com 5/28/13

    This is part of a climatic trend where wet springs occur more frequently in Iowa and the Midwest. The 30-year average Iowa spring rainfall of 13.1 inches is the highest of the past 140 years. A one-in-10 wet spring during the period from 1873-1980, now occurs one in three years. Ten of the top 20 wettest April-June rainfall periods with more than 15 inches have occurred from 1981-2013.

    But tornados are more exciting to the news boys so they get all the attention. No matter how bad the economic damage to Iowa is, tornadoes will always steal the show.

  3. rollin says:

    The temperate latitudes used to be a nice place to live with the best weather. Now the weather is unpredictable and unseasonal.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    And at the other end of the Earth we also have extreme warming which we know is affecting currents in the Southern ocean. Inevitably there are going to be further consequences as atmosphere and oceans also interact, on top of all the factors mentioned in the primer, ME

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      The collapse has begun, indeed it has been ongoing for centuries, but as there is ‘a deal of ruin’ in a planet, it was not immediately obvious for centuries, save to those with the insight to see where we were heading. But now it is running downhill, at frightening speed, like an avalanche, with no mechanism to turn it around. And it is occurring on a planet with seven billion people and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, a planet controlled by those with absolutely no compunction in aggression and mass murder.

      • caroza says:

        Yes. Have a nice day. Because there probably aren’t going to be too many more of them.

  5. If there is a tipping point in global warming that could have a really fast response it would be the loss of Polar sea ice. The low point last year was 3.5 mill sq Km and if it went down to 1 mill sq Km in about five years it would have an immediate affect on our ability to produce food.
    http://www.climateoutcome.kiwi.nz/ice-melt.html
    Keep an eye on it. It is happening now and it has very serious implications.

    • Andy Hultgren says:

      Climate Bob – this is a nice, clean summary that I found very readable while still covering the basics. Thanks for sharing.

    • wili says:

      Yes, nice site.

      And we may be on the cusp of just such a rapid collapse of Arctic sea ice. There is a major cyclone over the North Pole:

      >churning and cracking the ice,
      >drilling a hole in the middle of the ice pack,
      >transporting old ice out the Fram,
      >and probably drawing up warmer water from lower in the Arctic Ocean.

      http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/2013/05/if-this-is-real.html#comments

      This makes it ever more likely that we will have a new low extent/area low record in September, perhaps even breaking below the 1 million square k mark that many have identified as “essentially ice free.”

      The effects of such a consequence on the jet stream, on mid-latitude weather patterns, and on the major bread baskets of the world could be catastrophic.

    • That is precisely the predicate of my novel. And it happens soon, in 2018. By 2028, America (and perhaps New Zealand) is a land where 9/11 has happened in the context of Weimar Germany. Extreme psychological dislocation amid food shortages, economic ruin, and terrorism. Result: a right-wing demagogue who promises to set all to rights.

      Looks more likely all the time, I’m sorry to say. The ice cap is going fast, and the Tea Party, though not as active as in 2010, is still very much in play. All it needs is a triggering event, like the disappearance of the ice cap to fibrillate the jet stream and ruin agriculture forever.

      Did you catch that last in March 2012 a rogue bend in the jet stream allowed nighttime temperatures in Michigan to hit the 70s? The apple blossoms came weeks early. Result: 90% of the apple crop failed.

  6. Andy Hultgren says:

    Just wanted to thank Joe and the commentators for a wealth of really useful links. Thank you guys!!!

  7. Raul M. says:

    Yes, thank you all for leading to insight to our present need for action.
    During the deep water disaster there was no question that action was needed. And action was undertaken by the corporation, the local governments and even foreign corporations and governments to stop the oil leak and for cleanup of the oil.
    There has been evidence that the geoengeneering aspect of the cleanup operation had bad health repercussions, was expensive, and detracted from the immediate action needed to stop the oil leak.
    Currently, there are methane leaks without a clear responsible party to take initiative in stopping the leak.the leaks are known as plumes on land and sea. The plumes are more than enough to show on the world atmospheric maps. We know those plumes are very bad for us all. during the gulf of pollution spill, geoengeneering the spill was not thought to be sufficient reaction to the situation. Stopping the leak became paramount in the efforts and succeeded. It was the thing to do about the leak and enough collective resources were brought to the situation where it became clear that such would be accomplished.
    The it’s not in my back yard mentality to the methane plumes is a loosing proposition without justification.

  8. cervantes says:

    Yeah, I know I’m insufferable . . . The sea is not actually blue. It appears blue because you are seeing the reflection of the sky. If you put seawater in a glass, you will see that it is nearly colorless with perhaps a bit of a greenish tinge. It pretty much absorbs all wavelengths of visible light; it doesn’t preferentially reflect blue. Not that it matters, just being a jerk.

    • Joan Savage says:

      Maybe I’m more insufferable than you are!

      Light attenuation with depth of water (Beer-Lambert Law) means that infrared and shorter wavelengths (red-yellow) of visible light are attenuated near the surface. The deeper the water, the bluer and darker it looks to the human eye. Imagine if one put a hollow tube into the water so looking down through it, you saw the water without surface reflection of sky conditions.

  9. Melting sea ice is just one of things causing northern “darkening”:

    1) spring snow cover extent is disappearing even more than sea ice on a sqkm basis.

    2) the northward expansion of shrubs and boreal trees is replacing lighter grasslands with darker forests.

    3) black carbon accumulation (esp from jet exhaust) is darkening glaciers.

    My experience is that people “get” the threat to the jet stream once it is explained to them the way Dr. Francis does in her talks. She shows a graphic of how the polar jet stream is literally a river of air running down hill from southern temperate zones towards the north pole. The steeper the hill the faster the jet stream flows.

    As the arctic warms faster the hill gets less steep and the jet stream slows down and meanders more — just like a water river does.

    People understand gravity and the difference between steep rivers and flat rivers.

    There also seems to be another layer in which parts of the continents (like mountain ranges) create stationary impediments in the atmosphere to the jet stream…like sand bars in rivers. As the jet stream slows it has trouble pushing past these barriers and more often gets “stuck” in a certain wave pattern. Not sure on that part though…still reading about it.

    I think more we can use water river analogies to what is happening to the jet stream the more people will have a visceral understanding of it.

  10. It’s all about the ice cap. Once the ice cap goes, the jet stream follows. It rains where it shouldn’t, when it shouldn’t in amounts it shouldn’t, instead of where, when, and in amounts that agriculture has depended on for millennia.

    That could happen soon. Within 10 years, maybe five. Ask Dr. Jennifer Francis, or Dr. Mark Serreze, or Dr. Jeff Masters.

    Then what? My guess: nothing good.