More Research Linking Global Warming To Bad Weather Events

A new paper advances our understanding of the link between anthropogenic global warming and the apparent uptick in severe weather events we’ve been experiencing. Let’s have a look at the phenomenon and the new research.

Climate Change: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

It is mostly bad. Sometimes it is ugly. I was looking at crop reports from the USDA and noticed an interesting phenomenon in Minnesota, that is repeated across much of the US this year: Fewer acres are in crops but among those acres that are planted there is a high expected per-acre yield. The higher yield will make up for the lost acreage this year. Unfortunately, that is about as good as it gets.

The lost acreage, at least in Minnesota as I understand it, comes from a late spring followed by a wet early summer. And holy crap was it wet, and fairly cool. My own tomatoes were utterly confused. One plant produced a single tomato that ripened a month and a half early, then waited for weeks to make its next move. I think organisms do that sometimes; when they think they are about to die they reproduce desperately, which for a tomato plant, is producing one premature tomato and then trying to not be noticed for a while. In any event, many Minnesota farmers live with an interesting conflict. There are parts of their farms they can’t plant in a given year because it stays too wet too long, and that varies from year to year. The rest of the farm is irrigated much of the summer. This year, it seems that there has been enough extra rain to increase productivity of the irrigation season, but acreage was lost between the encore of a sort of Polar Vortex mimic and a lot of rain.

The extra productivity was a lucky break, and is limited in its effects. The same weather phenomenon that made June nearly the wettest month ever in the upper plains has contributed significantly to a longer term drought in California, which is on the verge of ruining agriculture there. Severe flooding or extreme dry can do much more damage to agriculture than is accounted for by minor increases in productivity because of the extra water vapor provided by Anthropogenic Global Warming.

And the floods can be downright dangerous. I was talking to my friend and former student Rusty several months ago about the flooding in Colorado. I asked her about how her husband was doing (they both happen to be climate scientists by the way).

“Oh he’s probably fine but I’ve not heard from him in three days. His cell phone battery is probably out. I imagine he’s clinging to some high ground up on the Front Range about now.”

He is a volunteer first responder and had headed up into the canyons year boulder during the big floods there. Which were like the big floods in Calgary. And Central Europe. And the UK. And that rainy June here. And the flooding that just happened in several parts of the US.

All of it, all of those floods, and some significant drought, and the Polar Vortex that hit the middle of North America last winter, all caused, almost certainly, by the same phenomenon.

Wildfires are probably enhanced by recent weather phenomenon as well, with extreme rains causing the build up of fuel, followed by extreme dry providing the conditions for larger and more frequent fires.

On the more extreme end of effects for severe weather is the Arab Spring phenomenon. It is one thing to have a bad year for corn because of a wet spring. It is worse to have a multi year drought that could seriously affect our ability to buy almonds, avocados and romaine from California. But what happens when an agricultural system fails for several years in a row, the farmer abandon the land and move to the cities where they become indigent, a civil war breaks out, and next think you know a Caliphate is formed, in part on the wreckage of one or two failed regimes, failed in large part because of severe weather conditions caused by human induced climate change?

I’ve discussed this at length before. (See: Linking Weather Extremes to Global Warming and Global Warming and Extreme Weather) The relationship is pretty simple, to know how it works all you have to do is remember one word:

AGWAAQRaRWaWW. Rhymes with “It’s stuck in my craw, paw!”

Let me parse that out for you.

AGW -> AA -> QR-RW -> WW

AGW - Anthropogenic Global Warming

Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is caused mainly by added CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel. By definition, the burning of fossil fuels is the release of energy by separation of carbon previously attached to other atoms by biological processes typically a long time ago, and over a long period of time. We humans are spending a century or two releasing tens and tens of millions of slow storage of Carbon, all at once in geological time, causing the chemistry of our atmosphere to resemble something we’ve not seen in tens of millions of years.

AA - Arctic Amplification

The CO2 by itself would warm the Earth to a certain degree, but it also produces what are called positive feedbacks. Which are not positive in a good way. For example, added CO2 means there is more water vapor in the atmosphere (because of more evaporation and ability for the atmosphere to hold water). Water vapor is, like CO2, a greenhouse gas. So we get even more warming. In the Arctic, there are a number of additional positive feedbacks that have to do with ice. The Arctic, with its additional positive feedbacks, warms more than other parts of the planet. This is called Arctic Amplification.

QR-RW - Quasi-resonant Rossby waves

Jet Stream Cross Section Cross section of the atmosphere of the Northern Hemisphere. The Jet Streams form at the highly energetic boundary between major circulating cells which contain the trade winds near the top of the Troposphere.

Normally, heat from the equator makes its way towards the poles via air and sea. Giant currents of air are set up by a combination of extra equatorial heat and the rotation of the earth. Part of this system is the so-called “trade winds” (winds that typically blow in a typical direction) and the jet streams.

What the jet stream is supposed to look like. What the jet stream is supposed to look like.

The jet streams occur at high altitude between major bands of trade winds that encircle the earth. The trade-wind/jet stream systems are typically straight rings that encircle the earth (a bit like the bands on the major gas planets) and the jet streams move, normally, pretty straight and pretty fast. But, with the warming of the Arctic, the differential between the equator and the poles is reduced, so all sorts of strange things happen, and one of those things is the formation of quasi-resonant Rossby waves.

A Rossby wave is simply a big giant meander in the jet stream. Quasi-resonant means “almost resonant” and resonant means that instead of the meanders meandering around, they sit in one place (almost).

What the jet stream looks like when it is all messed up. What the jet stream looks like when it is all messed up.

It appears that Quasi-resonant Rossby waves set up when there is a certain number (roughly a half dozen) of these big meanders. When this happens, the jet stream slows down. The big bends in the jet streams block or stall weather patterns, and the slow moving nature of the jet stream contributes to the formation of either flash droughts (as Paul Douglas calls them) where several weeks of nearly zero rain menace a region, or extensive and intensive rainfall, like all the events mentioned above.

WW - Weather Whiplash

That’s the term that refers to dramatic shifts between the extreme weather events created by Quasi-resonant Rossby Waves, the result of Arctic Amplification, caused by Anthropogenic Global Warming.

And that’s how you get yer AGWAAQRaRWaWW. Rhymes with “It’s stuck in my craw, paw!”

Quasi-resonant circulation regimes and hemispheric synchronization of extreme weather in boreal summer

Which brings us to Quasi-resonant circulation regimes and hemispheric synchronization of extreme weather in boreal summer. This is the title of a paper by Dim Coumou, Vladimir Petoukhov, Stefan Rahmstorf, Stefan Petri, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Here is the “for the people” abstract of the paper:

The recent decade has seen an exceptional number of boreal summer weather extremes, some causing massive damage to society. There is a strong scientific debate about the underlying causes of these events. We show that high-amplitude quasi- stationary Rossby waves, associated with resonance circulation regimes, lead to persistent surface weather conditions and therefore to midlatitude synchronization of extreme heat and rainfall events. Since the onset of rapid Arctic amplification around 2000, a cluster of resonance circulation regimes is ob- served involving wave numbers 7 and 8. This has resulted in a statistically significant increase in the frequency of high- amplitude quasi-stationary waves with these wave numbers. Our findings provide important new insights regarding the link between Arctic changes and midlatitude extremes.

The effects of climate change have occurred (and will occur) on a number of time scales. Over a century we’ve had a foot of sea level rise, which is showing its effects now. Storminess, in the form of changes in tornado regimes and tropical storms, has probably been with us for a few decades. But Agwaaqrarwaww has probably only been with us since about the beginning of the present century.

I blogged about this before. In “Global Warming And Extreme Weather” I described an earlier paper produced by the same research team, in which they presented this graphic:


Followed by this graphic, which I made, with the intention of more clearly showing the trend in QR events:


I sent that to one of the authors, which may have inspired the production of a different graphic but showing the same trend, for the current paper:


Look how recent this phenomenon is. It is now, current, happening at sub-climate time scales. We don’t know enough about it, and we need to address it.

I asked Stefan Rahmstorf, one of the paper’s author and the scientists I was exchanging graphics with, to elaborate on the signficance of this recent study and to explain why it is important. He told me, “Previous studies have failed to find trends linked to global warming which could explain the recent spate of unusual extreme events. For example they have looked at trends in the occurrence of blocking or in the speed of the jet stream. But you need to know what you are looking for in order to find it. The planetary wave equation reveals what the resonance conditions are which make the waves grow really big, causing extreme weather. So we knew what trends to look for.”

I also asked him if severe weather events post dating the end of his study period conform to expectations as Rossby Wave events. “I can’t say for sure because we have not done the analysis for the very latest data yet - studies like this take time,” he told me. “But I suspect there have been more resonance events. They are not necessarily constrained to July and August either. The record flooding in May/June 2013 in Germany of the Danube and Elbe rivers, for example, was associated with large planetary wave amplitudes. Dim Coumou has assembled a young research team now that will work on further data analysis.”

Damian Carrington has written up this research at the Guardian, and notes:

Prof Ted Shepherd, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, UK, but not involved in the work, said the link between blocking patterns and extreme weather was very well established. He added that the increasing frequency shown in the new work indicated climate change could bring rapid and dramatic changes to weather, on top of a gradual heating of the planet. “Circulation changes can have much more non-linear effects. They may do nothing for a while, then there might be some kind of regime change.”

Shepherd said linking the rise in blocking events to Arctic warming remained “a bit speculative” at this stage, in particular because the difference between temperatures at the poles and equator is most pronounced in winter, not summer. But he noted that the succession of storms that caused England’s wettest winter in 250 years was a “very good example” of blocking patterns causing extreme weather during the coldest season. “The jet stream was stuck in one position for a long period, so a whole series of storms passed over England,” he said.

I’m not convinced that the seasonality of Arctic Amplification matter much here, and I note that we’ve not looked closely at the Antarctic. Also, “blocking patterns” and QR waves are not really the same exact thing. They may be different features of the same overall phenomenon, but QR Rossby Waves are a more general phenomenon, and a “blocking” is something that happens, probably, when that phenomenon interacts with certain kinds of storms.

It occurs to me that there is a huge difference between Agwaaqrarwaww happening randomly in space vs. blocking and steering waves setting up for long periods of time over the same place, and appearing in those places typically. Like Godzilla. We know that over time Godzilla will usually destroy Tokyo and not London, because Godzialla, while sometimes random, is usually geographically consistant. Can we expect Rossby Waves to usually causae drought in California, flooding on the Front Range or Rockies, and drenching rains in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Region, for example? I asked Stefan about that as well.

“We have not looked at this aspect yet, but the recent paper by Screen and Simmonds has indeed found such a preference of the wave troughs and crests to sit in certain locations.

Ruh Roh.


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Is there anyone else that would agree with me that AGW is heads and tails above any other socio political problem we should be addressing, not just on a national level but on a global scale. Except maybe for the reason why we are not doing a better job of addressing it.

By Dimitrios Papa… (not verified) on 14 Aug 2014 #permalink

I believe it is the existential problem of our time. But I think you mean head and shoulders above, but still, yes.

Once the head and shoulders rise high enough, the tail gets there too. :)

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 14 Aug 2014 #permalink

What's most interesting to me about this is the lack of an appropriate public response, similar to the news a few months ago that we've committed to WAIS collapse.

The appropriate time to press the panic button was about ten years ago when the expansion of the tropics was first measured and found to be proceeding at a rapid pace. So the entire atmospheric circulation is quickly compressing poleward? Eh, what could possibly go wrong...

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 14 Aug 2014 #permalink

And let's not forget Sewall and Sloan, who may have been first into the literature on the role of the sea ice.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 14 Aug 2014 #permalink

The southern hemisphere is seeing effects as well, although I don't know to what extent this paper did a wave analysis.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 15 Aug 2014 #permalink

Good summary. Reminds me that the new academic year is nearly upon us, and it's time to update the AGW lectures for my climatology course. One minor kvetch; please, can we 86 all diagrams that show the Ferrell Cell?

It's not really there, at least not in the way that the diagrams suggest. One of the big problems with the Ferrel cell is that it can't account for the presence of upper air westerlies in the mid latitudes. In order to understand what's actually happening in the midlatitudes (especially in the northern hemisphere), it's necessary to get into Polar Front theory, which can be a can of worms. I think this is the reason that the Ferrel circulation still finds it's way into atmospheric science texts, especially introductory ones. It's relatively easy to understand. It's too bad, the cross-sectional diagram you showed is actually pretty good, except for this one problem.

Does the Wikipedia article have it right, Doug, or if not could you point to a source?

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 18 Aug 2014 #permalink

Doug, that is absolutely true, about the westerlies/easterlies thing. The Ferrel Cell as conceived of by Ferrel is not what actually happens. It is idealized, and to the extent that even a less than ideal version of the idealized form may not actually exist, the term is used to refer to the zone between the two major jet streams, polar from the Hadley cells (which do exist), etc. etc. So it is a term that has meaning even if not the original meaning, that's why it is probably in texts.

But there certainly is a case for coming up with a different term. But without a new term there would be this big blank region on all the diagrams!

Perhaps "Ferrel Zone"

Steve, actually, that wikipedia piece points out the main thing Doug is saying: "While the Hadley and Polar cells are truly closed loops, the Ferrel cell is not, and the telling point is in the Westerlies, which are more formally known as "the Prevailing Westerlies." While the Trade Winds and the Polar Easterlies have nothing over which to prevail, their parent circulation cells having taken care of any competition they might have to face, the Westerlies are at the mercy of passing weather systems. While upper-level winds are essentially westerly, surface winds can vary sharply and abruptly in direction. A low moving polewards or a high moving equator wards maintains or even accelerates a westerly flow; the local passage of a cold front may change that in a matter of minutes, and frequently does. A strong high moving polewards may bring easterly winds for days."

Greg -- I sometimes refer to it as the Ferrel zone, so I'd be on board with that. I also some times call it the Rossby wave region, because it's the planetary long waves that contribute to circulation. In my classes, I do discuss the Ferrel Cell, but only to point out it's inconsistencies. I use the classic example of US bombers in WW2, which I am not sure is actually true but makes a nice story because it allows me to connect abstract circulation models to real-life events.