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Amplified mid-latitude planetary waves favour particular regional weather extremes

Abstract

There has been an ostensibly large number of extreme weather events in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes during the past decade1. An open question that is critically important for scientists and policy makers is whether any such increase in weather extremes is natural or anthropogenic in origin2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13. One mechanism proposed to explain the increased frequency of extreme weather events is the amplification of mid-latitude atmospheric planetary waves14,15,16,17. Disproportionately large warming in the northern polar regions compared with mid-latitudes—and associated weakening of the north–south temperature gradient—may favour larger amplitude planetary waves14,15,16,17, although observational evidence for this remains inconclusive18,19,20,21. A better understanding of the role of planetary waves in causing mid-latitude weather extremes is essential for assessing the potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of future planetary wave changes. Here we show that months of extreme weather over mid-latitudes are commonly accompanied by significantly amplified quasi-stationary mid-tropospheric planetary waves. Conversely, months of near-average weather over mid-latitudes are often accompanied by significantly attenuated waves. Depending on geographical region, certain types of extreme weather (for example, hot, cold, wet, dry) are more strongly related to wave amplitude changes than others. The findings suggest that amplification of quasi-stationary waves preferentially increases the probabilities of heat waves in western North America and central Asia, cold outbreaks in eastern North America, droughts in central North America, Europe and central Asia, and wet spells in western Asia.

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Figure 1: Planetary-wave amplitude anomalies during months of extreme weather.
Figure 2: The geographical regions used in this study.
Figure 3: Frequency distributions of planetary-wave amplitude anomalies during months of extreme weather.
Figure 4: Frequency distributions of planetary-wave amplitude anomalies during months of near-average weather.

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Acknowledgements

CRUTEM4 data were provided by the UK Met Office Hadley Centre (www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs); GPCP data by the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/data); and ERA-Interim data by the ECMWF (apps.ecmwf.int/datasets/). This research was funded by UK Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/J019585/1 awarded to J.A.S.

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J.A.S. designed and performed the research, analysed data and wrote the paper. I.S. discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to James A. Screen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Screen, J., Simmonds, I. Amplified mid-latitude planetary waves favour particular regional weather extremes. Nature Clim Change 4, 704–709 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2271

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