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Decreased frequency of North Atlantic polar lows associated with future climate warming.

Research paper by Matthias M Zahn, Hans H von Storch

Indexed on: 17 Sep '10Published on: 17 Sep '10Published in: Nature



Abstract

Every winter, the high-latitude oceans are struck by severe storms that are considerably smaller than the weather-dominating synoptic depressions. Accompanied by strong winds and heavy precipitation, these often explosively developing mesoscale cyclones-termed polar lows-constitute a threat to offshore activities such as shipping or oil and gas exploitation. Yet owing to their small scale, polar lows are poorly represented in the observational and global reanalysis data often used for climatological investigations of atmospheric features and cannot be assessed in coarse-resolution global simulations of possible future climates. Here we show that in a future anthropogenically warmed climate, the frequency of polar lows is projected to decline. We used a series of regional climate model simulations to downscale a set of global climate change scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. In this process, we first simulated the formation of polar low systems in the North Atlantic and then counted the individual cases. A previous study using NCEP/NCAR re-analysis data revealed that polar low frequency from 1948 to 2005 did not systematically change. Now, in projections for the end of the twenty-first century, we found a significantly lower number of polar lows and a northward shift of their mean genesis region in response to elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration. This change can be related to changes in the North Atlantic sea surface temperature and mid-troposphere temperature; the latter is found to rise faster than the former so that the resulting stability is increased, hindering the formation or intensification of polar lows. Our results provide a rare example of a climate change effect in which a type of extreme weather is likely to decrease, rather than increase.