Regional weather extremes in recent years, such as the 2011 U.S. heat wave or the 2010 Russia heat wave coinciding with the Pakistan flood, share a common physical cause, according to a new study by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and SFI.

The study suggests that man-made climate change repeatedly disturbs the patterns of atmospheric flow around the globe's Northern hemisphere through a subtle resonance mechanism.

SFI External Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK, is co-author of the study, which is to be published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“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 the study’s 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: two or three days of 30 degrees Celsius are no problem, but twenty or more days lead to extreme heat stress. Because many ecosystems and cities are not adapted to prolonged hot periods, these aberrations can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and harvest losses, suggest the authors.

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 U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

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 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 Schellnhuber. “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.”

He adds that 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.

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.

Read the paper in PNAS (February 25, 2013, subscription required for full article)

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