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Northern Hemisphere atmospheric stilling partly attributed to an increase in surface roughness

Abstract

Surface winds have declined in China, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, the United States and Australia over the past few decades1,2,3,4. The precise cause of the stilling is uncertain. Here, we analyse the extent and potential cause of changes in surface wind speeds over the northern mid-latitudes between 1979 and 2008, using data from 822 surface weather stations. We show that surface wind speeds have declined by 5–15% over almost all continental areas in the northern mid-latitudes, and that strong winds have slowed faster than weak winds. In contrast, upper-air winds calculated from sea-level pressure gradients, and winds from weather reanalyses, exhibited no such trend. Changes in atmospheric circulation that are captured by reanalysis data explain 10–50% of the surface wind slowdown. In addition, mesoscale model simulations suggest that an increase in surface roughness—the magnitude of which is estimated from increases in biomass and land-use change in Eurasia—could explain between 25 and 60% of the stilling. Moreover, regions of pronounced stilling generally coincided with regions where biomass has increased over the past 30 years, supporting the role of vegetation increases in wind slowdown.

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Figure 1: Observed and reanalysis surface wind speed trends.
Figure 2: Wind speed distribution evolution.
Figure 3: Upper-air wind speed trends.
Figure 4: Surface wind trends and their relationship with NDVI trends.

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Acknowledgements

We thank X. Wang for his help with extraction of NDVI fields at the stations. We benefited from fruitful discussions with F-M. Bréon at LSCE.

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Contributions

R.V. designed the experiments and carried out the observation analysis, J.C. did all model experiments and analysis of outputs, as well as NCEP/NCAR reanalysis calculations. J-N.T. extracted and analysed all data from ERA-interim reanalyses. P.Y. initially suggested systematic wind trends in observations, and P.C. suggested that land-cover changes due to vegetation could be a major driver of wind stilling and helped design the experiments with NDVI. All co-authors substantially contributed to the paper writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert Vautard.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Vautard, R., Cattiaux, J., Yiou, P. et al. Northern Hemisphere atmospheric stilling partly attributed to an increase in surface roughness. Nature Geosci 3, 756–761 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo979

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