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Intensification of Northern Hemisphere subtropical highs in a warming climate

Abstract

Semi-permanent high-pressure systems over the subtropical oceans, known as subtropical highs, influence atmospheric circulation, as well as global climate. For instance, subtropical highs largely determine the location of the world’s subtropical deserts, the zones of Mediterranean climate and the tracks of tropical cyclones. The intensity of two such high-pressure systems, present over the Northern Hemisphere oceans during the summer, has changed in recent years. However, whether such changes are related to climate warming remains unclear. Here, we use climate model simulations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, reanalysis data from the 40-year European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, and an idealized general circulation model, to assess future changes in the intensity of summertime subtropical highs over the Northern Hemisphere oceans. The simulations suggest that these summertime highs will intensify in the twenty-first century as a result of an increase in atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations. We further show that the intensification of subtropical highs is predominantly caused by an increase in thermal contrast between the land and ocean. We suggest that summertime near-surface subtropical highs could play an increasingly important role in regional climate and hydrological extremes in the future.

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Figure 1: Climatology of summertime subtropical highs in the Northern Hemisphere.
Figure 2: Simulated domain-averaged summertime subtropical highs’ intensity.
Figure 3: Changes in the dominant heating component between the twenty-first- and twentieth-century run.
Figure 4: Changes in the multi-model ensemble mean vertical profile of total diabatic heatings.
Figure 5: Idealized GCM simulation.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the international modelling groups for providing their data for analysis, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison for collecting and archiving the model data, the JSC/CLIVAR Working Group on Coupled Modelling and their Coupled Model Intercomparison Project and Climate Simulation Panel for organizing the model data analysis activity, and the IPCC WG1 TSU for technical support. The IPCC Data Archive at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. We sincerely thank G. Wu, F. Jin and P. A. Baker for helpful discussions, P. Zhang and C. Li for graphics help, and H. M. Aird and I. Stuart for editorial assistance. This work is supported by the NSF AGS 1147608, and Y. Liu is supported by NSFC 40925015.

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W.L. led the study and wrote the manuscript; L.L. carried out data analyses, prepared Figs 14 and documented the study. Y.L. conducted the idealized GCM simulation and prepared Fig. 5, M.T. participated in science discussion. All authors contributed to the data and model interpretation and revisions.

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Correspondence to Wenhong Li.

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Li, W., Li, L., Ting, M. et al. Intensification of Northern Hemisphere subtropical highs in a warming climate. Nature Geosci 5, 830–834 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1590

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