Behind these devastating individual events there is a common physical cause, propose scientists of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). The study will be published this week in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and suggests that man-made climate change repeatedly disturbs the patterns of atmospheric flow around the globe's Northern hemisphere through a subtle resonance mechanism.
“An important part of the global air motion in the mid-latitudes of the Earth normally takes the form of waves wandering around the planet, oscillating between the tropical and the Arctic regions. So when they swing up, these waves suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the US, and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic,” explains lead author Vladimir Petoukhov.
“What we found is that during several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks. So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays. In fact, we observe a strong amplification of the usually weak, slowly moving component of these waves,” says Petoukhov. Time is critical here: two or three days of 30 degrees Celsius are no problem, but twenty or more days lead to extreme heat stress. Since many ecosystems and cities are not adapted to this, prolonged hot periods can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and dramatic harvest losses.
Climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning does not mean uniform global warming – in the Arctic, the relative increase of temperatures, amplified by the loss of snow and ice, is higher than on average. This in turn reduces the temperature difference between the Arctic and, for example, Europe, yet temperature differences are a main driver of air flow. Additionally, continents generally warm and cool more readily than the oceans. “These two factors are crucial for the mechanism we detected,” says Petoukhov. “They result in an unnatural pattern of the mid-latitude air flow, so that for extended periods the slow synoptic waves get trapped.”
The authors of the study developed equations that describe the wave motions in the extra-tropical atmosphere and show under what conditions those waves can grind to a halt and get amplified. They tested their assumptions using standard daily weather data from the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP). During recent periods in which several major weather extremes occurred, the trapping and strong amplification of particular waves – like “wave seven” (which has seven troughs and crests spanning the globe) – was indeed observed. The data show an increase in the occurrence of these specific atmospheric patterns, which is statistically significant at the 90 percent confidence level.
“Our dynamical analysis helps to explain the increasing number of novel weather extremes. It complements previous research that already linked such phenomena to climate change, but did not yet identify a mechanism behind it,” says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK and co-author of the study. “This is quite a breakthrough, even though things are not at all simple – the suggested physical process increases the probability of weather extremes, but additional factors certainly play a role as well, including natural variability.” Also, the 32-year period studied in the project provides a good indication of the mechanism involved, yet is too short for definite conclusions.
Nevertheless, the study significantly advances the understanding of the relation between weather extremes and man-made climate change. Scientists were surprised by how far outside past experience some of the recent extremes have been. The new data show that the emergence of extraordinary weather is not just a linear response to the mean warming trend, and the proposed mechanism could explain that.
Article: Petoukhov, V., Rahmstorf, S., Petri, S., Schellnhuber, H. J. (2013): Quasi-resonant amplification of planetary waves and recent Northern Hemisphere weather extremes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Early Edition) [doi:10.1073/pnas.1222000110]
Weblink to the article (once it is published): www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1222000110For further information please contact:
Mareike Schodder | PIK Potsdam
Extending climate predictability beyond El Niño
21.04.2015 | University of Hawaii ‑ SOEST
Comparing Climate Models to Real World Shows Differences in Precipitation Intensity
17.04.2015 | Department of Energy, Office of Science
Max Planck researcher Buhalqem Mamtimin determines how much nitrogen oxide is released into the atmosphere from agriculturally used oases.
In order to make statements about current and future air pollution, scientists use models which simulate the Earth’s atmosphere. A lot of information such as...
Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) and the University of Konstanz are working on storing and processing information on the level of single molecules to create the smallest possible components that will combine autonomously to form a circuit. As recently reported in the academic journal Advanced Science, the researchers can switch on the current flow through a single molecule for the first time with the help of light.
Dr. Artur Erbe, physicist at the HZDR, is convinced that in the future molecular electronics will open the door for novel and increasingly smaller – while also...
Cells of the vascular system of vertebrates can fuse with themselves. This process, which occurs when a blood vessel is no longer necessary and pruned, has now been described on the cellular level by Prof. Markus Affolter from the Biozentrum of the University of Basel. The findings of this study have been published in the journal “PLoS Biology”.
The vascular system is the supply network of the human organism and delivers oxygen and nutrients to the last corners of the body. So far, research on the...
Astronomers from Chalmers University of Technology have used the giant telescope Alma to reveal an extremely powerful magnetic field very close to a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy
Astronomers from Chalmers University of Technology have used the giant telescope Alma to reveal an extremely powerful magnetic field very close to a...
A team of physicists from MPQ, Caltech, and ICFO proposes the combination of nano-photonics with ultracold atoms for simulating quantum many-body systems and creating new states of matter.
Ultracold atoms in the so-called optical lattices, that are generated by crosswise superposition of laser beams, have been proven to be one of the most...
13.04.2015 | Event News
25.03.2015 | Event News
19.03.2015 | Event News
21.04.2015 | Materials Sciences
21.04.2015 | Earth Sciences
21.04.2015 | Studies and Analyses