Letter | Published:

Contribution of changes in atmospheric circulation patterns to extreme temperature trends

Nature volume 522, pages 465469 (25 June 2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Surface weather conditions are closely governed by the large-scale circulation of the Earth’s atmosphere. Recent increases in the occurrence of some extreme weather phenomena1,2 have led to multiple mechanistic hypotheses linking changes in atmospheric circulation to increasing probability of extreme events3,4,5. However, observed evidence of long-term change in atmospheric circulation remains inconclusive6,7,8. Here we identify statistically significant trends in the occurrence of atmospheric circulation patterns, which partially explain observed trends in surface temperature extremes over seven mid-latitude regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Using self-organizing map cluster analysis9,10,11,12, we detect robust circulation pattern trends in a subset of these regions during both the satellite observation era (1979–2013) and the recent period of rapid Arctic sea-ice decline (1990–2013). Particularly substantial influences include the contribution of increasing trends in anticyclonic circulations to summer and autumn hot extremes over portions of Eurasia and North America, and the contribution of increasing trends in northerly flow to winter cold extremes over central Asia. Our results indicate that although a substantial portion of the observed change in extreme temperature occurrence has resulted from regional- and global-scale thermodynamic changes, the risk of extreme temperatures over some regions has also been altered by recent changes in the frequency, persistence and maximum duration of regional circulation patterns.

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Acknowledgements

Work by D.E.H., D.S., D.L.S. and N.S.D. was supported by NSF CAREER Award 0955283, DOE Integrated Assessment Research Program Grant No. DE-SC005171DE-SC005171, and a G.J. Lieberman Fellowship to D.S. Contributions from N.C.J. were supported by NOAA’s Climate Program Office’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections program award NA14OAR4310189. B.R. acknowledges support from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-13-1-0043), the US National Science Foundation (DMS-0906392, DMS-CMG-1025465, AGS-1003823, DMS-1106642, and DMS-CAREER-1352656), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA YFA N66001-111-4131), and the UPS Foundation (SMC-DBNKY). We thank B. Santer, J. Cattiaux, D. Touma, and J. S. Mankin for discussions that improved the manuscript. Computational resources for data processing and analysis were provided by the Center for Computational Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Daniel E. Horton
    • , Deepti Singh
    • , Daniel L. Swain
    • , Bala Rajaratnam
    •  & Noah S. Diffenbaugh
  2. Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Daniel E. Horton
    • , Bala Rajaratnam
    •  & Noah S. Diffenbaugh
  3. International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Nathaniel C. Johnson
  4. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • Nathaniel C. Johnson
  5. Cooperative Institute for Climate Science, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Nathaniel C. Johnson
  6. Department of Statistics, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Bala Rajaratnam

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Contributions

D.E.H. conceived the study. D.E.H., N.C.J., D.S., D.L.S. and N.S.D. designed the analysis and co-wrote the manuscript. D.E.H., N.C.J. and D.S. provided analysis tools. D.E.H. performed the analysis. B.R. provided and described the multiple hypothesis testing and transformation analysis.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Daniel E. Horton.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14550

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