Category Archives: Stratosphere

There’s more to the UK winter than the stratosphere

The title might seem rather obvious – or a surprising statement coming from me! But what I seek to achieve in this short blog post is provide a simple reminder that historically cold weather has indeed happened without a sudden stratospheric warming (or significant stratospheric polar vortex disruption).

The role of the stratosphere can sometimes be overstated. We saw in winter 2018-2019 how a major SSW doesn’t even necessarily spell dramatic cold weather for the UK since some stratospheric events do not couple strongly downwards. The state of the stratospheric vortex is a “boundary condition” to which the troposphere responds (to varying degrees). That’s what makes it so fantastic – we can gain predictive skill from it for several weeks. But it is not the only boundary condition.

However, for us in the UK on the receiving end of an “Atlantic radiator” of warmth, deep cold does need something significantly unusual to happen. A breakdown of the mean westerly circulation in the stratosphere can do that (as we saw in Feb-March 2018) but other drivers can provide similar impacts. The troposphere is a noisy place.

Figure 1 shows that the DJF-mean 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal wind has only a weak relationship with the UK DJF mean precipitation (temperature even less so, but I’ve used rainfall here as it has no clear trend, and colder winters tend to be drier). It’s interesting that the very wettest winters have had a contemporaneously strong 10 hPa vortex, suggesting these are unlikely without stratospheric support – but that’s about as much as this shows. Evidently, strong vortex does not simply equal wetter and stormier.

kde_rain_u10.png

Figure 1: DJF-mean 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal wind against UK DJF mean precipitation for DJF 1979-1980 to 2017-2018. A kernel density estimate is applied.

Now time for a few case studies to illustrate the point…

December 2010

With a mean Central England Temperature (CET) of -0.7C, December 2010 was the coldest December since 1890 and the first month with a mean CET below freezing since February 1986. It is the only recent winter month which comes anywhere near rivalling the “great winter” months (e.g. January 1963) that have become increasingly rare due to climate change. I often wonder how cold it might have been had it occurred 50 years earlier.

But, while the winter of 2009-2010 saw some of its cold weather associated with a major SSW on February 9th 2010, there was no major SSW in December 2010. In fact, the 10 hPa vortex was around average strength (Figure 2). There was no “dripping paint” from the stratosphere; the anomalous blocking/negative Arctic Oscillation pattern was confined to the troposphere (Figure 3).

dec_2010

Figure 2: 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal winds for 2010-2011 per MERRA-2 reanalysis (via https://ozonewatch.gsfc.nasa.gov/meteorology/wind_2010_MERRA2_NH.html)

dec_2010_drip.jpg

Figure 3: “Dripping paint” of 65-90N standardized geopotential height anomalies for Oct-Dec 2010. In Dec 2010, higher than average height anomalies (circled) were confined to the troposphere and did not have a stratospheric precursor (via https://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/stratosphere/strat-trop/)

Evidently December 2010 was extraordinary, so I’ll support this with another example…

January 1987

The easterly outbreak in January 1987 makes 2018 look like the Wimp from the East, and it was generally unrivalled until 2018’s Beast.  Figure 4 shows the 850 hPa temperature field on 12 January 1987, when the cold wave was near peak intensity.

CFSR_1_1987011200_2

Figure 4: 850 hPa temperature and geopotential height for 12 January 1987 at 00Z, from the CFSR reanalysis via https://www.wetterzentrale.de/

Some of you may recall there was a major SSW in January 1987, and you’d be correct – but it was on January 23rd, after the cold weather outbreak! In fact, the Scandinavian ridge that brought the cold wave in 1987 may have helped drive the SSW which followed. Lehtonen and Karpechko (2016) pointed out how the tropospheric patterns (blocking) associated with these severe cold waves can act as drivers of SSWs themselves, with the greatest cold preceding the stratospheric event but the best predictability following the event. Something similar may also have occurred in January 2010.

So, as we move into a period where the polar vortex looks to be strengthening – remember that there’s more to the UK winter than the stratosphere…

Final Stratospheric Warmings

The stratospheric Polar Vortex is currently at record-strong levels, based on the metrics of 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal-wind and 60-90N average temperature. This is likely to be due to a combination of the timing and duration of the major Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW) in January: the duration of easterlies (most of January) shielded the vortex from vertically propagating wave activity for an extended period (these waves cannot propagate into a layer of mean easterly flow) allowing the vortex to redevelop following the SSW, whilst the early-season timing allowed strong radiative recovery in the absence of significant solar radiation. The associated positive stratospheric NAM is well coupled to a positive tropospheric NAM, which seems also to have enhanced North Atlantic storminess. It’s all a far cry from where 2019 began.

winds10hpa_20190315_12_000

10 hPa winds per GFS 12Z analysis March 15 2019. With U1060 at 49.2 m/s, this fulfills the ‘strong vortex event’ criterion of Tripathi et al. 2015 (41.2 m/s). Image credit wxcharts.com.

However, and not for the first time this winter, our attentions have turned to stratospheric warming! Recent forecasts from the GFS ensemble have shown a large pulse of wave activity with an amplification of the Aleutian ridge stretching and displacing the vortex. Stratospheric temperatures are expected to rise rapidly, and some ensemble members are suggesting [U] 10 hPa 60N to turn easterly again in early April.

So, a rapid rise in stratospheric temperatures, accompanied by a displacement of the polar vortex and a reversal of zonal winds… is this then another major Sudden Stratospheric Warming?

Yes and no.

The major SSWs we talk about are more technically “major midwinter warmings” (MMWs), which are followed by a recovery of the stratospheric Polar Vortex to westerlies for at least 10 consecutive days before April 30 (Charlton and Polvani, 2007). The upcoming warming event is likely to become what is known as a dynamical Final Stratospheric Warming (FSW), also known as a “major final sudden stratospheric warming (“major final warming”, MFW)” (Manney and Lawrence, 2016).

The “Final Warming” refers to the transition of the stratosphere to “summer mode” – when the polar vortex dissipates and easterlies develop which persist until late August/early September when the vortex reforms. This is most simply driven due to thermodynamics – a result of solar radiation returning and warming the polar region. Climatologically, the last day of zonal mean westerlies is April 12th.

However, sometimes a sudden warming driven by the same dynamical processes which cause MMWs can occur so late in the season that the vortex is unable to recover as the Sun returns to the pole. This then becomes a dynamical FSW.

There’s a couple of reasons why FSWs don’t get the same attention as MMWs. They are dynamically different in that the planetary wave behaviour following the event is different (since stratospheric easterlies remain). The late-season timing of the events means the typical cold-weather outbreaks don’t occur with quite such severity, and tropospheric responses are often lost in the seasonal transition (with tropospheric jet streams and storm tracks evolving from winter-mode to spring-mode). There’s also the consideration of the anomaly magnitude – stratospheric zonal winds are weak or easterly during April regardless of whether a dynamical FSW occurred, which is very different to mid-winter. But, largely, the differentiation is just based on statistics, and everything in the build-up and occurrence of the warming is the same – which makes them another source of information about the behaviour and predictability of the troposphere and stratosphere.

Some FSWs are rather special and are “SSWs in hiding”. March 5th 2016 saw a very strong stratospheric warming event which produced the second-strongest zonal-mean easterlies on record (at 10 hPa 60N), but is often forgotten because it became an FSW [interestingly, the 2016 event also decelerated a record-strong vortex, like 2019 is expected to do…]. The oft-mentioned statistic of the February 2018 SSW being the first since January 2013 is indeed true, but it means the March 2016 event – which was an MMW in all but a technicality – is forgotten. There was some lively debate on Twitter recently as Judah Cohen argued the March 2016 event deserved to be included in the SSW Compendium! Indeed, it did have some significant surface impacts with downward propagation of a negative NAM phase into the troposphere. Britain saw a cold and snowy Easter that year, for example.

2016_event

MERRA-2 data for 2015-16 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal wind. The event in March 2016 saw date-record strong easterlies which did not return to westerlies, and thus was a Final Warming. Image credit NASA.

time_pres_HGT_ANOM_ALL_NH_2016

Time-height cross-section of normalized 65-90N geopotential height anomalies. The March 2016 stratospheric warming event is clearly evident, with downward propagation into April. Image credit NOAA CPC.

You have to draw the line somewhere. Maybe we should have a Final Stratospheric Warming Compendium so these events are given equal treatment.

Returning to 2019, given that we currently have a strongly zonal state, it will be interesting to see whether the upcoming warming event has an effect on that – though discerning any transitions from those which would occur simply because of the seasonal cycle may be more challenging. And, just like sudden warmings, we face the question of whether or not the troposphere is even all that bothered by the stratosphere!

References

Tripathi, O. P., A. Charlton-Perez, M. Sigmond, and F. Vitart, 2015: Enhanced long-range forecast skill in boreal winter following stratospheric strong vortex conditions. Environ. Res. Lett. http://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/10/104007

Charlton, A. J., and L. M. Polvani, 2007: A New Look at Stratospheric Sudden Warmings. Part I: Climatology and Modelling Benchmarks. J. Climate. http://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI3996.1

Manney, G. L., and Z. D. Lawrence, 2016: The major stratospheric final warming in 2016: dispersal of vortex air and termination of Arctic chemical ozone loss. Atmos. Chem. Phys. https://doi.org/10.5194/acp-16-15371-2016

10 years later: the January 2009 SSW

January 24th, 2009. This was the ‘central date’ (defined as the day on which the 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal wind reverses from westerly to easterly) of a remarkable, record-breaking major Sudden Stratospheric Warming event, and there are several reasons why this event is worth a revisit 10 years later.

The Jan 2009 event set a large number of significant records in the stratosphere – and it still holds almost all of these to this day, despite strong competition from warming events in 2016 and 2018.

The aspect of the event that I always recall is the monumental (you might say…stratospheric) deceleration of the 10 hPa 60N zonal wind, which you can see in Figure 1. In early January 2009, the stratospheric polar vortex was date-record strong, with westerly zonal-mean winds ~70 m/s. Only a few days later, they were all-time record-weak, with zonal-mean easterlies of ~30 m/s. Only the final stratospheric warming (FSW) event of March 2016 comes close to rivalling 2009’s easterlies – the event is in the clear in terms of SSWs that are ‘major mid-winter warmings’. The mean deceleration rate between the peak (Jan 8th) and trough (Jan 28th) was an astonishing 10 m/s/day!

u1060.PNG

Figure 1: 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal winds for 2008-09 from MERRA-2 (via NASA Ozonewatch).

Associated with this rapid deceleration of the vortex was a rapid warming. This is the most wonderful example of why we call them “sudden warmings”. On January 12th, the mean 60-90N (polar-cap) 10 hPa temperature was 202K. On January 23rd, it was 253K – a rise of 51K in 11 days! The peak of 253K remains a satellite-era record for this region of the stratosphere, as you can see in Figure 2.

polarcap_temp_10hpa.PNG

Figure 2: 10 hPa 60-90N average temperatures for 2008-09, according to MERRA-2 data.

Of course, to produce such a huge warming, you need a massive heat flux (which also indicates huge amounts of wave activity propagating into the stratosphere, through the Eliassen-Palm relation). The 45-75N heat flux at 10 hPa was another metric which hit outrageously high values that have never been matched. The peak of 564 K m/s on Jan 19th is 6.5 times larger than the daily-mean climatology (and 2.5 times larger than the 90th percentile!), which is shown in Figure 3. 

10hpa_hf.PNG

Figure 3: 45-75N 10 hPa eddy heat flux ([v*T*]) for 2008-09, according to MERRA-2 data.

This all came together to produce a textbook wave-2 vortex split. Figure 4 shows this fantastic evolution (thanks to Patrick Martineau for the excellent graphics) – you can really see the cold, strong vortex that existed beforehand, and the strong heat flux from the Atlantic sector. I think you could call this “catastrophic vortex failure”. It’s also worth comparing the location of the daughter vortices in this event versus what’s been happening so far in 2019.

2009_01_29

Figure 4: Animation of 10 hPa geopotential height (left) and temperature (right) during the Jan 2009 SSW. Animation created by Patrick Martinaeau (http://p-martineau.com/ssw-animations/).

This SSW was also a Polar-night Jet Oscillation (PJO) event (Hitchcock et al. 2013), so had the associated impressive appearance on time-pressure plots of polar-cap geopotential height (Figure 5) – with a long-lasting signal in the lower-stratosphere. According to Karpechko et al. (2017)’s Table 1, 100% of the days 8-52 after the central date had a negative 150 hPa NAM (one of only 5 times that has occurred since 1979). I always think Jan 2009 looks like a side-on view of a foot stamping down on the troposphere! You can also see that the event affected the troposphere until late March – over 2 months after the initial warming.

time_pres_hgt_anom_jfm_nh_2009

Figure 5: 65-90N standardized geopotential height anomalies for JFM 2009 (credit: NOAA CPC).

This moves the discussion nicely onto the downward propagation of the event. It wasn’t as strong as some SSWs – only 69% of the days 8-52 after the event had a negative 1000 hPa NAM index, and therefore ranks nearer the bottom end of Karpechko et al.’s “downward-propagating” SSWs (dSSW) (and that’s not surprising looking at Figure 5). However, it was nevertheless a dSSW, and had various impacts across the N Hemisphere. I’m somewhat limited in my analysis by the current US government shutdown, so I’ll focus on the British Isles.

Figure 6 (a snippet from some work I’ve been doing on SSWs and easterly outbreaks in the UK) shows the British Isles were influenced by easterlies 7-13 days after the SSW – which was the only case of mean easterlies in the 45 days following the event. Using this metric… the 2009 SSW isn’t special at all, although does pass my semi-arbitrary threshold of 5 consecutive easterly days for a true “outbreak”. However, I still do find it incredible that such a huge, hemispheric phenomenon as a major SSW, involving massive planetary waves and propagation from 30-50 km above our heads, can have a detectable response in such a small area as the British Isles. That’s one of those “isn’t the atmosphere amazing?!” moments.

jan_09_ssw.png

Figure 6: Average 850 hPa zonal winds across the British Isles in the 45 days following the January 2009 SSW, according to JRA-55 reanalysis.

This easterly spell brought with it colder-than-normal temperatures and snow. The Met Office’s monthly summary for Feb 2009 notes that “it was very cold during the first part of the month with snowfalls in many areas. This was the most widespread snowfall as a whole since February 1991”. Figure 7 shows the Met Office surface analysis for 18Z Feb 1st, with a negative NAO pattern and an easterly flow over NW Europe evident.

09020118_ukmet_analyse

Figure 7: 18Z Met Office surface pressure and frontal analysis for Feb 1st 2009.

Finally, the January 2009 SSW will always be special to me on a personal level, as it was the first time I had heard of sudden stratospheric warming and its influence on the tropospheric weather patterns. A schematic posted by the Met Office in a press release (announcing an increased likelihood of cold weather in the next few weeks), showed wind reversals propagating down from the stratosphere to the troposphere and eventually the surface. This fascinated me, and it started a journey which, 10 years later, finds me doing a stratosphere-related PhD project.

met office ssw

Figure 8: Met Office diagram showing the downward propagation of zonal wind reversals associated with a major SSW.

References

February 2009 – Met Office: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/summaries/2009/february

Hitchcock, P., T. G. Shepherd, and G. L. Manney, 2013: Statistical Characterization of Arctic Polar-Night Jet Oscillation Events. J. Climate., 26, 2096-2116, https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00202.1.

Karpechko, A. Y., P. Hitchcock, D. H. W. Peters, and A. Schneidereit, 2017: Predictability of downward propagation of major sudden stratospheric warmings. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 143, 1459-1470, https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.3017.

NASA MERRA-2 Annual Meteorological Statistics: https://acd-ext.gsfc.nasa.gov/Data_services/met/ann_data.html

NOAA CPC Stratosphere-Troposphere Monitoring: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/stratosphere/strat-trop/

Polar vortex animation during Stratospheric Sudden Warming [Patrick Martineau]: http://p-martineau.com/ssw-animations/

Wetter3 UKMO surface chart archive: http://www1.wetter3.de/Archiv/archiv_ukmet.html

Not all SSWs were created equal

Non-downward propagating SSWs? 

Major stratospheric sudden warming events (SSWs) attract widespread attention because they are now known to have significant impacts on the tropospheric circulation (e.g. Baldwin and Dunkerton 2001, hereafter BD01). Anomalies in the stratospheric circulation (often expressed as the Northern Annual Mode (NAM) index, or polar cap geopotential height anomalies) propagate downwards through the stratosphere into the troposphere, rather like “dripping paint” (such as BD01 Fig. 2). A major SSW is associated with the development of a negative NAM in the stratosphere; the “typical” response is the development of a negative NAM (or the associated NAO/AO) in the troposphere ~10-14 days after the central date of the SSW (when the 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal wind becomes easterly) which can persist for several months.

However, not all SSWs were created equal – and some SSWs do not strongly couple to the tropospheric circulation. A recent study by Karphechko et al. (2017) classified major SSWs as “downward propagating” (dSSW) or otherwise (nSSW) based on the 1000 hPa NAM index following the event, and found 43% were nSSW – i.e., not followed by a strong and persistently negative surface NAM. This is not a small fraction of SSWs, and the atmospheric evolution following the two types was found to be significantly different. 

Our perception of SSWs in recent years has been highly influenced by a relatively unusual clustering of vortex-split, downward-propagating events (Jan 2009, Feb 2010, Jan 2013 and Feb 2018) which all had similar tropospheric impacts (all 4 of those events were followed by an outbreak of snow/cold in the UK, for example). The most recent nSSW occurred in Feb 2008. Thus, the announcement of a major SSW – particularly on social media – has become synonymous with a specific weather pattern.

In the nSSW cases considered by Karpechko et al., the composite (their Fig. 1c) actually shows intermittently positive NAM in the troposphere following the SSW – with the sign of the NAM opposing between the lower stratosphere and the troposphere for ~40 days following the central date. This is very different to the picture of dripping -NAM anomalies into the troposphere that BD01 made famous (which is consistent with Karpechko et al.’s dSSW).

Composites of all major SSWs are influenced by the higher frequency of dSSW and the stronger circulation anomalies induced, but this work suggests we need to be wary of these stratospheric events which don’t strongly influence what happens beneath. However, forecast models often struggle to predict the downward propagation – so forecasting these events is troublesome. It also presents a communication problem, which current forecasts (see below!) suggest we may be about to run into: a major SSW could mean a significant reversal of the normal tropospheric circulation (with the potential for “Beast from the East”-type events in the UK), or it could mean very little (e.g. January 2002 following the non-downward propagating Dec 2001 SSW). Predicting these differences, and understanding the mechanisms involved, is an area of active research – and something I hope to address in my PhD work.

Do current forecasts suggest nSSW or dSSW?

As I write this, we’re in a tentative stage – the main stratospheric heat flux event has occurred, and the 60N zonal-mean zonal wind has reversed to easterlies in the upper stratosphere. However, at 10 hPa we’re still decelerating – with the event expected to become ‘major’ around Jan 1 (Fig. 1 & 2) if current forecasts are correct (inter-model agreement has substantially increased now the upper-stratospheric reversal is in the observations).  The event looks very likely to be first driven by a wave-1 displacement of the vortex towards Eurasia, with an increasing likelihoodo of a vortex split (wave-2) to then occur, with the dominant daughetr vortex over Eurasia and a smaller vortex over N America (interestingly, this is opposite to what happened in Feb 2018). However, agreement on the split evolution remains lower than the displacement.

gefs_27-12-2018

Figure 1: Forecasts of the 10 hPa 60N zonal-mean zonal wind from 00Z December 27th. There is a good agreement between the GFS and its ensemble of a major SSW occurring around Jan 1st.

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Figure 2: ECMWF operational forecast from 12Z December 26th for 12Z January 1st showing a major SSW. Source: http://www.geo.fu-berlin.de/en/met/ag/strat/produkte/winterdiagnostics/. 

So, predicting the tropospheric impacts is a challenge when the stratospheric forecasts don’t agree! The spread in the GEFS forecasts beyond 10 days is very large – with some members showing a quick return to stratospheric westerlies whilst others flirt with record-strong easterlies. There’s even some indication of bifurcation in the ensemble at longer ranges (perhaps relating to whether or not a split occurs), which may render the ensemble mean of less use.

Despite the uncertainty, one aspect that has been relatively persistent is the absence of a signal for downward propagation in the deterministic GFS (Fig. 3) and the longer-range models such as CFSv2 (Fig. 4). Comparing Fig. 3 here with the nSSW composite in the Karpechko paper is striking – there are many similarities, including the weak -NAM before the main event and the ~day 10 tropospheric +NAM development. On its own, this screams nSSW – but of course is just a single deterministic forecast from one model.

gfs_nh-namindex_20181226

Figure 3: GFS NAM analyses and forecasts from 00Z December 26th. Source: Zac Lawrence’s website (www.stratobserve.com). 

The CFSv2 initially trended strongly towards a -NAO for January 2019 as the SSW signal grew – but this has since decayed and transitioned more towards an Atlantic ridge pattern (Fig. 4). The model clearly picked up on a major SSW occurring – but, like all forecast systems this time, has struggled to predict the type of SSW. There is currently no indication (Fig. 5) from the CFSv2 forecasts of a widespread hemispheric cold outbreak (a “warm Arctic-cold continents” pattern).

cfs_gif

Figure 4: CFSv2 forecasts from Dec 1 – Dec 27 for January 2019 700 hPa geopotential height anomalies. Note the initial trend away from a +NAO towards a strong -NAO, before trending towards an “Atlantic ridge” pattern.

cfs

Figure 5: CFSv2 2m tempertaure anomaly forecast for January 2019 from an ensemble of forecasts launched between Dec 16-25. Base period 1999-2010. Source: http://origin.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/people/wwang/cfsv2fcst/. 

My advice would be not to hold your breath for a “Beast from the East 2019 Edition”. But as predictability typically increases once a major SSW has occurred, we should gain a much better picture in the first few days of 2019.

Takeaway message: the impacts of SSWs are more complex than whether it is a displacement or a split, and the mere reversal of the 10 hPa 60N zonal wind doesn’t mean you’ll be shovelling snow 2 weeks later.

References

Baldwin, M. P., and T. Dunkerton, 2001: Stratospheric Harbingers of Anomalous Weather Regimes. Science, 294, 581-584, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1063315.

Karpechko, A. Y., P. Hitchcock, D. H. W. Peters, and A. Schneidereit, 2017: Predictability of downward propagation of major sudden stratospheric warmings. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc., 143, 1459-1470, https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.3017.

The Stratosphere – why do we care?

I study the stratosphere, the layer of atmosphere that extends above the troposphere from about 10-50 km. Friends and colleagues of mine often joke (I hope…) that “nobody cares about the stratosphere” *, primarily because it contains no real ‘weather’ – such as what happens in the troposphere. With little to no water vapour, it can’t be seen on visible satellite imagery – unlike the huge and beautiful weather systems in the troposphere. To visualise the stratosphere, we rely primarily on computer-generated graphics – and it’s not like you can walk outside and experience it, either. So, why do we care? What follows is a relatively simple (I hope!) explanation.

Weather forecasts, particularly on TV, often explain that our weather is “all down to the position of the jet stream” (the band of fast flowing air high in the troposphere that forms on the boundary between warmer and cooler airmasses). Now, that’s almost always true in the UK, but it’s particularly potent in winter – when the temperature contrasts either side of the jet become enhanced thanks to the Polar Night. One of the main driving factors behind the speed and position of the jet stream (particularly the Atlantic jet stream) in winter is… the stratosphere!

Rather like the jet streams we know and love/loathe in the troposphere that guide the development and evolution of weather systems, in the stratosphere there exists another jet stream – the Polar Night Jet (Figure 1). This encircles the Stratospheric Polar Vortex (SPV). Both of these form as the pole tilts away from the Sun in winter, leading to intense cooling. The strong temperature gradient then forms a jet stream and cyclonic vortex, which isolates the air within the vortex, and it cools further…etc. The Polar Vortex is a normal phenomenon which forms each winter – nothing sensational like some headlines suggest.

ZMZW_00Z_04022018

Figure 1: GFS zonal wind analysis from February 4th 2018. Reds indicate westerly winds. A strong Polar Night Jet exists in the stratosphere, associated with a strong tropospheric jet.

Through a process known as stratosphere-troposphere coupling, the stratosphere and the troposphere beneath can ‘talk’ via the influence of planetary/Rossby waves. These very large waves in the mid-latitude westerly flow can propagate vertically from the troposphere into the stratosphere and influence the circulation there – a process known as wave-mean flow interaction. Sometimes, this is strong enough to strongly disrupt the SPV, and when that happens, the isolated reservoir of cold air is broken down and the temperature sky-rockets… by as much as 50C in only a few days. This is known as a Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW). Very strong SSWs – called major SSWs – occur in approximately 6 winters per decade, and result in a reversal of the Polar Night Jet to easterlies. The Polar Vortex is either displaced, split up, or destroyed (2018’s SSW is shown in Figure 2).

2018_SSW_full.gif

Figure 2: The February 2018 Major SSW, as told through daily analyses from the GFS of 10 hPa wind (filled) and geopotential height (contours). This is classified as a ‘split’ SSW, for obvious reasons.

This has implications for our weather, because anomalies in the strength and position of the SPV and the Polar Night Jet can propagate downwards and influence the tropospheric jet stream. A stronger than normal SPV is associated with a strengthened tropospheric jet stream – and for us in the UK, that means Atlantic westerlies and generally mild winter weather. In contrast, following a major SSW, the easterlies propagate downwards (Figures 3 and 4) – resulting in a reduction in strength of the Atlantic westerlies. Sometimes, there can be a complete reversal of circulation – this happened in March 2018 with the infamous ‘Beast from the East’, bringing cold and snowy weather.

ZMZW_00Z_17022018.png

Figure 3: As in Figure 1, but for February 17th, following the major SSW. Note the weaker tropospheric jet and surface easterlies as the ‘Beast from the East’ developed in response.

Thus, being able to predict the state of the Stratospheric Polar Vortex is a source of skill for wintertime forecasts. Moreover, because there tends to be some lag between the events in the stratosphere and their maximum impact at the surface (~2 weeks), stratospheric predictability can provide increased predictability on the sub-seasonal timeframe (~15-30 days). Additionally, anomalies associated with a major SSW tend to persist in the lower stratosphere for even longer – which again, is a source of skill.

JFM_stratosphere.jpg

Figure 4: Anomalies in geopotential height for January-March 2018. Note how anomalies associated with the major SSW (red blob in the centre) propagate downwards like ‘dripping paint’.

And that is why we care about the stratosphere!

Further reading:

Kidston et al., 2015: Stratospheric influence on tropospheric jet streams, storm tracks and surface weather. Nature Geoscience, 8, 433-440.

*A tongue-in-cheek quote from Reading Meteorology’s weekly ‘Weather and Climate Discussion’ a few years ago that stuck with me was “the stratosphere – nothing of interest lies therein”. I plan to use that in my thesis…