Article | Published:

Enhanced poleward propagation of storms under climate change


Earth’s midlatitudes are dominated by regions of large atmospheric weather variability—often referred to as storm tracks— which influence the distribution of temperature, precipitation and wind in the extratropics. Comprehensive climate models forced by increased greenhouse gas emissions suggest that under global warming the storm tracks shift poleward. While the poleward shift is a robust response across most models, there is currently no consensus on what the underlying dynamical mechanism is. Here we present a new perspective on the poleward shift, which is based on a Lagrangian view of the storm tracks. We show that in addition to a poleward shift in the genesis latitude of the storms, associated with the shift in baroclinicity, the latitudinal displacement of cyclonic storms increases under global warming. This is  achieved by  applying a storm-tracking algorithm to an ensemble of CMIP5 models. The increased latitudinal propagation in a warmer climate is shown to be a result of stronger upper-level winds and increased atmospheric water vapour. These changes in the propagation characteristics of the storms can have a significant impact on midlatitude climate.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Blackmon, M., Wallace, J., Lau, N. & Mullen, S. An observational study of the Northern Hemisphere wintertime circulation. J. Atmos. Sci. 34, 1040–1053 (1977).

  2. 2.

    Hoskins, B. & Hodges, K. New perspectives on the Northern Hemisphere winter storm tracks. J. Atmos. Sci. 59, 1041–1061 (2002).

  3. 3.

    Ulbrich, U., Leckebusch, G. C. & Pinto, J. G. Extra-tropical cyclones in the present and future climate: a review. Theor. Appl. Climatol. 96, 117–131 (2009).

  4. 4.

    O’Gorman, P. A. Understanding the varied response of the extratropical storm tracks to climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 19176–19180 (2010).

  5. 5.

    Chang, E. K. M., Guo, Y. & Xia, X. CMIP5 multimodel ensemble projection of storm track change under global warming. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D23118 (2012).

  6. 6.

    Harvey, B. J., Shaffrey, L. C., Woollings, T. J., Zappa, G. & Hodges, K. I. How large are projected 21st century storm track changes? Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L18707 (2012).

  7. 7.

    Zappa, G., Shaffrey, L. C. & Hodges, K. I. The ability of CMIP5 models to simulate North Atlantic extratropical cyclones. J. Clim. 26, 5379–5396 (2013).

  8. 8.

    Shaw, T. A. et al. Storm track processes and the opposing influences of climate change. Nat. Geosci. 9, 656–664 (2016).

  9. 9.

    Yin, J. H. A consistent poleward shift of the storm tracks in simulations of 21st century climate. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L18701 (2005).

  10. 10.

    Bengtsson, L., Hodges, K. I. & Roeckner, E. Storm tracks and climate change. J. Clim. 19, 3518–3543 (2006).

  11. 11.

    Bengtsson, L., Hodges, K. I. & Keenlyside, N. Will extratropical storms intensify in a warmer climate? J. Clim. 22, 2276–2301 (2009).

  12. 12.

    Catto, J. L., Shaffrey, L. C. & Hodges, K. I. Northern Hemisphere extratropical cyclones in a warming climate in the HiGEM high-resolution climate model. J. Clim. 24, 5336–5352 (2011).

  13. 13.

    Mizuta, R. Intensification of extratropical cyclones associated with the polar jet change in the CMIP5 global warming projections. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L19707 (2012).

  14. 14.

    Lambert, S. J. & Fyfe, J. C. Changes in winter cyclone frequencies and strengths simulated in enhanced greenhouse warming experiments: results from the models participating in the IPCC diagnostic exercise. Clim. Dyn. 26, 713–728 (2006).

  15. 15.

    Chang, E. K. M. Projected significant increase in the number of extreme extratropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere. J. Clim. 30, 4915–4935 (2017).

  16. 16.

    McCabe, G. J., Clark, M. P. & Serreze, M. C. Trends in northern hemisphere surface cyclone frequency and intensity. J. Clim. 14, 2763–2768 (2001).

  17. 17.

    Fyfe, J. C. Extratropical southern hemisphere cyclones: harbingers of climate change? J. Clim. 16, 2802–2805 (2003).

  18. 18.

    Lu, J., Chen, G. & Frierson, D. M. W. The position of the midlatitude storm track and eddy-driven westerlies in aquaplanet AGCMs. J. Atmos. Sci. 67, 3984–4000 (2010).

  19. 19.

    Graff, L. S. & LaCasce, J. H. Changes in the extratropical storm tracks in response to changes in SST in an AGCM. J. Clim. 25, 1854–1870 (2012).

  20. 20.

    Mbengue, C. & Schneider, T. Storm track shifts under climate change: what can be learned from large-scale dry dynamics. J. Clim. 26, 9923–9930 (2013).

  21. 21.

    Shaw, T. A. & Voigt, A. What can moist thermodynamics tell us about circulation shifts in response to uniform warming? Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 4566–4575 (2016).

  22. 22.

    Mbengue, C. & Schneider, T. Storm-track shifts under climate change: toward a mechanistic understanding using baroclinic mean available potential energy. J. Atmos. Sci. 74, 93–110 (2017).

  23. 23.

    Lu, J., Vecchi, G. A. & Reichler, T. Expansion of the Hadley cell under global warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L06805 (2007).

  24. 24.

    Lorenz, D. J. & DeWeaver, E. T. Tropopause height and zonal wind response to global warming in the IPCC scenario integrations. J. Geophys. Res. 112, D10119 (2007).

  25. 25.

    Butler, A. H., Thompson, D. W. J. & Heikes, R. The steady-state atmospheric circulation response to climate change-like thermal forcings in a simple general circulation model. J. Clim. 23, 3474–3496 (2010).

  26. 26.

    Caballero, R. The dynamic range of poleward energy transport in an atmospheric general circulation model. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L02705 (2005).

  27. 27.

    Kodama, C. & Iwasaki, T. Influence of the SST rise on baroclinic instability wave activity under an aquaplanet condition. J. Atmos. Sci. 66, 2272–2287 (2009).

  28. 28.

    Graff, L. S. & LaCasce, J. H. Changes in cyclone characteristics in response to modified SSTs. J. Clim. 27, 4273–4295 (2014).

  29. 29.

    Kushner, P. J. & Polvani, L. M. Stratosphere-troposphere coupling in a relatively simple AGCM: impact of the seasonal cycle. J. Clim. 19, 5721–5727 (2006).

  30. 30.

    Chen, G. & Held, I. M. Phase speed spectra and the recent poleward shift of Southern Hemisphere surface westerlies. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L21805 (2007).

  31. 31.

    Kidston, J., Dean, S. M., Renwick, J. A. & Vallis, G. K. A robust increase in the eddy length scale in the simulation of future climates. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L03806 (2010).

  32. 32.

    Rivière, G. A dynamical interpretation of the poleward shift of the jet streams in global warming scenarios. J. Atmos. Sci. 68, 1253–1272 (2011).

  33. 33.

    Tamarin, T. & Kaspi, Y. The poleward shift of storm tracks under global warming: a Lagrangian perspective. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, L073633 (2017).

  34. 34.

    Taylor, K., Stouffer, R. & Meehl, G. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

  35. 35.

    Hodges, K. I. Feature tracking on the unit sphere. Mon. Weather Rev. 123, 3458–3465 (1995).

  36. 36.

    Coronel, B., Ricard, D., Rivière, G. & Arbogast, P. Role of moist processes in the tracks of idealized mid-latitude surface cyclones. J. Atmos. Sci. 72, 2979–2996 (2015).

  37. 37.

    Tamarin, T. & Kaspi, Y. The poleward motion of extratropical cyclones from a potential vorticity tendency analysis. J. Atmos. Sci. 73, 1687–1707 (2016).

  38. 38.

    Tamarin, T. & Kaspi, Y. Mechanisms controlling the downstream poleward deflection of midlatitude storm tracks. J. Atmos. Sci. 74, 553–572 (2017).

  39. 39.

    Vallis, G. K. Atmospheric and Oceanic Fluid Dynamics. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2006).

  40. 40.

    Stoelinga, M. T. A potential vorticity-based study of the role of diabatic heating and friction in a numerically simulated baroclinic cyclone. Mon. Weath. Rev 124, 849–874 (1996).

  41. 41.

    Barnes, E. A. & Polvani, L. Response of the midlatitude jets, and of their variability, to increased greenhouse gases in the CMIP5 Models. J. Clim. 26, 7117–7135 (2013).

  42. 42.

    Held, I. M. & Soden, B. J. Robust responses of the hydrological cycle to global warming. J. Clim. 19, 5686–5699 (2006).

  43. 43.

    Yettella, V. & Kay, J. E. How will precipitation change in extratropical cyclones as the planet warms? Insights from a large initial condition climate model ensemble. Clim. Dyn. 49, 1769–1781 (2016).

Download references


The data were obtained from the World Data Center for Climate (WDCC). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programmes Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Data) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. The authors also thank K. Hodges for providing the tracking algorithm and his help with implementing it on the CMIP5 data. We also thank B. Stevens and M. Esch from the Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology, for providing the high-temporal-resolution data necessary for the PV analysis. This research has been supported by the Israeli Science Foundation (grant 1819/16).

Author information

T.T.-B. and Y.K. designed the study and wrote the paper; T.T.-B. performed the data analyses.

Correspondence to Talia Tamarin-Brodsky.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Further reading

Fig. 1: Ensemble-mean CMIP5 tracking statistics for the historical (1980–1999) storm tracks and the projected changes (2080–2099 minus historical).
Fig. 2: The historical (1980–1999) tracks of the low-level cyclones (850 hPa) for an CMIP5 example model, HadGEM-CC (model number 10 from Supplementary Table 1).
Fig. 3: Model-to-model variations in the projected differences of cyclonic tracks.
Fig. 4: Upper-level (250 h Pa) velocity composites produced by tracking the low-level (850 hPa) cyclonic vorticity features.