Letter | Published:

Occurrence and persistence of future atmospheric stagnation events

Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 698703 (2014) | Download Citation


Poor air quality causes an estimated 2.6–4.4 million premature deaths per year1,2,3. Hazardous conditions form when meteorological components allow the accumulation of pollutants in the near-surface atmosphere4,5,6,7,8. Global-warming-driven changes to atmospheric circulation and the hydrological cycle9,10,11,12,13 are expected to alter the meteorological components that control pollutant build-up and dispersal5,6,7,8,14, but the magnitude, direction, geographic footprint and public health impact of this alteration remain unclear7,8. We used an air stagnation index and an ensemble of bias-corrected climate model simulations to quantify the response of stagnation occurrence and persistence to global warming. Our analysis projects increases in stagnation occurrence that cover 55% of the current global population, with areas of increase affecting ten times more people than areas of decrease. By the late twenty-first century, robust increases of up to 40 days per year are projected throughout the majority of the tropics and subtropics, as well as within isolated mid-latitude regions. Potential impacts over India, Mexico and the western US are particularly acute owing to the intersection of large populations and increases in the persistence of stagnation events, including those of extreme duration. These results indicate that anthropogenic climate change is likely to alter the level of pollutant management required to meet future air quality targets.

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We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 2) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provided coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. CMAP, GPCP, UDel, and NCEP-R2 reanalysis data were provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from their Web site (www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/). ERA-Interim reanalysis data were provided by the European Centre for Medium-Range Forecasting at their web site (www.ecmwf.int/).

Author information


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

    • Daniel E. Horton
    • , Christopher B. Skinner
    • , Deepti Singh
    •  & Noah S. Diffenbaugh
  2. Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Daniel E. Horton
    •  & Noah S. Diffenbaugh


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D.E.H. and N.S.D. conceived the study. D.E.H. performed the analysis. D.S. and C.B.S. contributed analysis tools. All co-authors co-wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Daniel E. Horton.

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