Northern Hemisphere circumpolar vortex trends and climate change implications



[1] Trends in the Northern Hemisphere circumpolar vortex at 700, 500, and 300 hPa are examined to assess the relationship between circulation variability and air temperature. A vortex climatology is developed for the period 1949–2000. At each pressure level, three geopotential height contours are used to quantify the size and position of the vortex at 5° longitude resolution within and both north and south of the primary hemispheric baroclinic zone. This combination of spatial specificity and the long temporal record makes this the most comprehensive vortex climatology to date. The overall and seasonal vortex time series for the Northern Hemisphere are created for northern, middle, and southern contours at each of the three levels in the atmosphere. From the beginning of the record until 1970, the vortex exhibits a statistically significant expansion, but the vortex has been contracting significantly since then at all levels. The pre-1970 expansion and subsequent contraction is strongest in the lower latitudes and weakest in the higher latitudes. The trends are also stronger in the upper troposphere than in the lower troposphere. Spatial examination of the vortex indicates that the pre-1970 expansion and post-1970 contraction were driven primarily by expansion/contraction over Asia, Europe, and North America with little change over the Northern Hemisphere oceans. Although significant climate change debate focuses on the discrepancy between positive trends in surface air temperature and little or no trends in Microwave Sounding Unit (MSU) satellite temperatures, contraction of the circumpolar vortex at every level of the atmosphere implies that the atmosphere is warming at depth since 1970. Comparisons with the MSU temperature history indicate that the Northern Hemisphere circulation as a whole, as represented by the circumpolar vortex, accounts for almost two thirds of the interannual variability in midlatitude MSU temperature, indicating that vortex size and position are coupled strongly to atmospheric temperature and could be a good indicator of climate change. On a latitude-by-latitude and level-by-level basis, the lower latitudes are associated most strongly with MSU temperature in the midtroposphere while the middle and higher latitudes are more closely associated with MSU temperature in the upper troposphere. The vortex trends are also similar to observed surface warming trends.