The behavior of extreme cold air outbreaks under greenhouse warming

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Abstract

Climate model output is used to analyze the behavior of extreme cold-air outbreaks (CAOs) under recent and future climatic conditions. The study uses daily output from seven GCMs run under late-twentieth century and projected twenty-first century radiative conditions (SRES A1B greenhouse gas emission scenario). We define a CAO as an occurrence of two or more consecutive days during which the local mean daily surface air temperature is at least two standard deviations below the local wintertime mean temperature. In agreement with observations, the models generally simulate modern CAOs most frequently over western North America and Europe and least commonly over the Arctic. These favored regions for CAOs are located downstream from preferred locations of atmospheric blocking. Future projections indicate that CAOs—defined with respect to late-twentieth century climatic conditions—will decline in frequency by 50 to 100% in most of the Northern Hemisphere during the twenty-first century. Certain regions, however, show relatively small changes and others actually experience more CAOs in the future, due to atmospheric circulation changes and internal variability that counter the thermodynamic tendency from greenhouse forcing. These areas generally experience greater near-surface wind flow from the north or the continent during the twenty-first century and/or are especially prone to atmospheric blocking events. Simulated reductions in CAOs are smallest in western North America, the North Atlantic, and in southern regions of Europe and Asia. The Eurasian pattern is driven by a strong tendency for the models to produce sea-level pressure (SLP) increases in the vicinity of the Mediterranean Sea (intermodel mean of 3 hPa), causing greater advection of continental air from northern and central Asia, while the muted change over western North America is due to enhanced ridging along the west coast and the increased frequency of blocking events. The North Atlantic response is consistent with a slowdown of the thermohaline circulation, which either damps the warming regionally or results in a cooler mean climate in the vicinity of Greenland. Copyright © 2006 Royal Meteorological Society.

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