Arctic Death Spiral: How It Favors Extreme, Prolonged Weather Events ‘Such As Drought, Flooding, Cold Spells And Heat Waves’

We are headed for record lows in Arctic sea ice area and volume, as I discussed Monday.

The death spiral will start to make headlines in this country when we beat the record low sea ice extent set in 2007 as monitored by our National Snow and Ice Data Center. We are getting close, as the latest data make clear (see figure).

But the death spiral of Arctic ice deserves attention beyond its obvious indication of a warming planet. There is increasing scientific analysis suggesting that the loss of ice in the distant Arctic is helping drive the off-the-charts extreme weather we have been seeing right here in this country in recent years (see “Has Global Warming Caused A Quantum Jump In Extreme Weather?”)

In particular, a 2012 Geophysical Research Letters study, “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” finds that the loss of Arctic ice favors “extreme weather events that result from prolonged conditions, such as drought, flooding, cold spells, and heat waves.”

One of the authors, Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, explains her work in this video (longer video here):

This is likely to be the story of the decade, especially since we are are on track for large declines in summer Arctic sea ice by 2020 and since the extreme weather is already helping to drive food prices to record levels (see “Climate Story of the Year: Warming-Driven Drought and Extreme Weather Emerge as Key Threat to Global Food Security”)


These videos are a bit on the technical side, so I’m going to reprint excerpts of two more general discussions. Andrew Freedman, senior science writer for Climate Central, had a good post in April, “Arctic Warming is Altering Weather Patterns, Study Shows.” He explains:

The study shows that by changing the temperature balance between the Arctic and mid-latitudes, rapid Arctic warming is altering the course of the jet stream, which steers weather systems from west to east around the hemisphere. The Arctic has been warming about twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, due to a combination of human emissions of greenhouse gases and unique feedbacks built into the Arctic climate system.

The jet stream, the study says, is becoming “wavier,” with steeper troughs and higher ridges. Weather systems are progressing more slowly, raising the chances for long-duration extreme events, like droughts, floods, and heat waves.

“[The] tendency for weather to hang around longer is going to favor extreme weather conditions that are related to persistent weather patterns,” said Francis, the study’s lead author.

One does not have to look hard to find an example of an extreme event that resulted from a huge, slow-moving swing in the jet stream. It was a stuck or “blocking weather pattern” — with a massive dome of high pressure parked across the eastern U.S. for more than a week — that led to the remarkable March heat wave that sent temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast soaring into the 80s. In some locations, temperatures spiked to more than 40 degrees above average for that time of year.

The strong area of high pressure shunted the jet stream far north into Canada. At one point during the heat wave, a jetliner flying at 30,000 feet could’ve hitched a ride on the jet stream from Texas straight north to Hudson Bay, Canada. In the U.S., more than 14,000 warm-weather records (record-warm daytime highs and record-warm overnight lows) were set or tied during the month of March, compared to about 700 cold records.

Dr. Jeff Masters, Weather Underground director of meteorology and former hurricane hunter, also had a good explanation. Masters noted earlier this year that:

The climate has shifted to a new state capable of delivering rare & unprecedented weather events.”

Here is his longer discussion of Francis’s work:

Arctic sea ice loss can slow down jet stream winds

Dr. Francis looked at surface and upper level data from 1948–2010, and discovered that the extra heat in the Arctic in fall and winter over the past decade had caused the Arctic atmosphere between the surface and 500 mb (about 18,000 feet or 5,600 meters) to expand. As a result, the difference in temperature between the Arctic (60–80°N) and the mid-latitudes (30–50°N) fell significantly. It is this difference in temperature that drives the powerful jet stream winds that control much of our weather.

The speed of fall and winter west-to-east upper-level winds at 500 mb circling the North Pole decreased by 20% over the past decade, compared to the period 1948–2000, in response to the extra warmth in the Arctic. This slow-down of the upper-level winds circling the pole has been linked to a Hot Arctic-Cold Continents pattern that brought cold, snowy winters to the Eastern U.S. and Western Europe during 2009–2010 and 2010–2011.

Arctic sea ice loss may increase the amplitude of jet stream troughs and ridges

The jet stream generally blows from west to east over the northern mid-latitudes, with an average position over the central U.S. in winter and southern Canada in summer. The jet stream marks the boundary between cold polar air to the north and warm subtropical air to the south, and is the path along which rain and snow-bearing low pressure systems ride. Instead of blowing straight west-to-east, the jet stream often contorts itself into a wave-like pattern. Where the jet stream bulges northwards into a ridge of high pressure, warm air flows far to the north. Where the jet loops to the south into a trough of low pressure, cold air spills southwards. The more extreme these loops to the north and south are–the amplitude of the jet stream–the slower the waves move eastward, and consequently, the more persistent the weather conditions tend to be.

A high-amplitude jet stream pattern (more than 1000 miles or 1610 km in distance between the bottom of a trough and the peak of a ridge) is likely to bring abnormally high temperatures to the region under its ridge, and very cold temperatures and heavy precipitation underneath its trough. The mathematics governing atmospheric motions requires that higher-amplitude flow patterns move more slowly. Thus, any change to the atmosphere that increases the amplitude of the wave pattern will make it move more slowly, increasing the length of time extreme weather conditions persist.

Dr. Francis discovered that during the early 1960s, a natural pattern in the atmosphere called the Arctic Oscillation increased the amplitude of the winter jet stream pattern over North America and the North Atlantic by more than 100 miles, increasing the potential for long-lasting weather conditions. The amplitude of the winter jet fell over 100 miles (161 km) during the late 1960s, remained roughly constant during the 1970s — 1990s, then increased by over 100 miles again during the 2000s. This latest increase in wave amplitude did not appear to be connected to the Arctic Oscillation, but did appear to be connected to the heating up of the Arctic due to sea ice loss. A warmer Arctic allows ridges of high pressure to build farther to the north. Since temperatures farther to the south near the bases of the troughs are not changing much by comparison, the result is that the amplitude of the jet stream grows as the ridges of high pressure push farther to the north. Thus it is possible that Arctic sea ice loss and the associated increases in jet stream amplitude could be partially responsible for some of the recent unusual extreme weather patterns observed in the Northern Hemisphere….

Earlier snow cover melt on Arctic land also increases the amplitude of jet stream troughs and ridges

As Earth’s climate has warmed over the past 30 years, the Northern Hemisphere has seen a dramatic drop in the amount of snow cover in spring (April, May, and June.) Spring is coming earlier by an average of three days per decade, and the earlier arrival of spring has significantly reduced the amount of snow on the ground in May. Less snow on the ground means the land surface can heat up more readily, and May temperatures in Arctic have increased significantly over the past 30 years. Dr. Francis found that the upper-level wave amplitude has increased by over 100 miles (161 km) in summer over the past decade, and this change appears to be connected to the decline in May snow cover. Thus, reduced May snow cover due to global warming may be causing higher-amplitude jet stream patterns, potentially leading to slower-moving weather patterns that favor extreme weather in summer, such as heat waves, drought, and flooding. Note that significant changes to the upper-level atmospheric circulation in spring were not observed, so springtime extreme weather events like the 2011 flooding and tornadoes in the U.S. cannot be connected to changes in the Arctic sea ice or high-latitude snow cover using this research.

We are just the beginning of what I expect will be a deluge of analysis on the impact of global warming in general — and Arctic ice loss in particular — on extreme weather.

Related Posts: