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The climate is changing: the Arctic Dipole emerges

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 3:53 PM GMT on December 11, 2009

The dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice in recent years has created a fundamental new change in the atmospheric circulation in the Northern Hemisphere that has sped up sea ice loss and is affecting fall and winter weather across most of the Northern Hemisphere, according to several recent studies. Arctic sea ice loss peaks in September and October, exposing a large area of open water that heats the air above it. This extra heat has helped drive September - November air temperatures in the Arctic to 1°C (1.8°F) or more above average over about half of the depth of the lower atmosphere (Figure 1). This deep layer of warm air has grown less dense and expanded, pushing the top of the troposphere (the lower atmosphere) higher. The result has been a decrease in the pressure gradient (the difference in pressure) between the North Pole and mid-latitudes. With not as much difference in pressure to try and equalize, the jet stream has slowed down in the Arctic, creating a major change in the atmospheric circulation for the Northern Hemisphere.

Figure 1. Cross section of Arctic temperature anomaly from 1000 mb (the surface) to 300 mb (roughly, the height of the top of the lower atmosphere or troposphere). Cross section is taken along the Date Line (180°W), from 60°N latitude (left side) to the North Pole (right side), for September - November for the 12-year period 1998 - 2009. Three year averages were done to reduce the amount of year-to-year noise associated with natural variation. Other cross sections along different lines of longitude show similar results, though typically with more warming aloft and less warming at the surface. Image credit: NOAA/ESRL.

A new atmospheric pattern emerges: the Arctic Dipole
In a 2008 article titled, Recent radical shifts of atmospheric circulations and rapid changes in Arctic climate system Zhang et al. show that the extreme loss of Arctic sea ice since 2001 has been accompanied by a radical shift of the Arctic atmospheric circulation patterns, into a new mode they call the Arctic Rapid change Pattern. The new atmospheric circulation pattern has also been recognized by other researchers, who refer to it as the Arctic Dipole (Richter-Menge et al., 2009). The old atmospheric patterns that controlled Arctic weather--the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and Arctic Oscillation (AO), which featured air flow that tended to circle the pole, now alternate with the new Arctic Dipole pattern. The Arctic Dipole pattern features anomalous high pressure on the North American side of the Arctic, and low pressure on the Eurasian side. This results in winds blowing more from south to north, increasing transport of heat into the central Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Dipole pattern occurred in all summer months of 2007 and helped support the record 2007 summer reduction in sea ice extent (Overland et al., 2008). Overland et al., 2010 also found that the Arctic Dipole pattern tended to create an increase in easterly winds in the lower half of the atmosphere of 40% in fall, between 2002 - 2008. Fall 2008 through spring 2009 featured the old AO pattern. The new Arctic Dipole pattern re-appeared in June - July 2009, but the old AO pattern dominated in August - September, resulting in greater sea ice extent than in 2007 and 2008. The Arctic Dipole pattern was active again in October, inactive in November, and reasserted itself this December. As a result, Arctic sea ice reached a new record minimum for a 10-day period in early November, increased above record lows during late November and early December, and appears poised again to reach a new record minimum later this December (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sea ice extent in the Arctic for this year (blue line) compared to the record low year of 2007 (green line) and 1979 - 2000 average (gray line). One could make the ice loss looks less significant by using the full satellite data record from 1979 - 2008 for the average. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Arctic Dipole blamed for colder winters in East Asia
It turns out that the new Arctic circulation patterns help to intensify the Siberian High, a large semi-permanent region of surface high pressure prevalent in winter over Siberia. According to Honda et al. (2009), this results in increased flow of cold air out of the Arctic in early winter over eastern Russia, Japan, Korea, and eastern China, causing colder temperatures. By late winter, the pattern shifts, resulting in colder than average temperatures from East Asia to Europe.

Arctic Dipole blamed for drier winters in Northern Europe
Francis et al. (2009) found that during 1979 - 2006, years that had unusually low summertime Arctic sea had a 10 - 20% reduction in the temperature difference between the Equator and North Pole. This resulted in a weaker jet stream with slower winds that lasted a full six months, through fall and winter. The weaker jet caused a weaker Aleutian Low and Icelandic Low during the winter, resulting in a more negative North Atlantic Oscillation--a pattern that usually brings reduced winter precipitation over Alaska and Northern Europe and increased precipitation over Southern Europe. A more negative NAO also tends to bring cold winters to eastern North America and Europe. Though it was not mentioned in the article, reduced Arctic sea ice may also cause dry early winter conditions in the U.S. and the Caribbean (Figure 3). The authors noted that strong La Niña or El Niño events can have a much larger influence on the wintertime atmospheric circulation, which will overshadow the changes due to Arctic sea ice loss.

Figure 3. Difference in early winter precipitation (November - January) between five years that had low Arctic sea ice (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009), and five years that had unusually high Arctic sea ice extent (1981, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1993). Note that low sea ice may be responsible for dry conditions in early winter for the Caribbean and most of the U.S.

Arctic sea ice loss appears to have created a new atmospheric circulation pattern that brings more warm air in the Arctic, creating a positive feedback loop that causes even more sea ice loss. This feedback loop increases the likelihood that an ice-free Arctic in the summer will indeed come by 2030, as many Arctic experts are predicting. It's worth noting that such an atmospheric circulation shift was not predicted by the climate models. Indeed, the loss of Arctic sea ice over the past three years exceeds what any of our models were predicting (Figure 4). While we can rightly criticize these models for their inaccuracy, we should realize that they are just as capable of making errors not in our favor as they are of making errors in our favor.

Figure 4. Arctic sea ice extent from observations (thick orange line) and 13 model forecasts used to formulate the 2007 IPCC report (light lines). The thick black line is the multi-model ensemble mean, with the standard deviation plotted as a dashed black line. Image has been updated to include the observed 2008 and 2009 measurements. None of the models predicted the record 2007 sea ice loss. Image credit: Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast by Stroeve et al., 2007.

Francis, J.A., W. Chan, D.J. Leathers, J.R. Miller, and D.E. Veron, 2009, "Winter Northern Hemisphere weather patterns remember summer Arctic sea-ice extent", Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L07503, doi:10.1029/2009GL037274.

Honda, M., J. Inoue, and S. Yamane, 2009. Influence of low Arctic sea - ice minima on anomalously cold Eurasian winters, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L08707, doi:10.1029/2008GL037079.

Overland, J. E., M. Wang, and S. Salo, 2008: The recent Arctic warm period, Tellus, 60A, 589.597.

Overland, J. E., and M. Wang, 2010: Large-scale atmospheric circulation changes associated with the recent loss of Arctic sea ice. Tellus, 62A, 1–9.

Richter-Menge, J., and J.E. Overland, Eds., 2009: Arctic Report Card 2009, http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/reportcard.

Simmonds, I., and K. Keay (2009), Extraordinary September Arctic sea ice reductions and their relationships with storm behavior over 1979.2008, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L19715, doi:10.1029/2009GL039810.

Wu, B., J. Wang, and J. E. Walsh, 2006: Dipole anomaly in the winter Arctic atmosphere and its association with sea ice motion. J. Climate, 19, 210-225.

Zhang, X., A. Sorteberg, J. Zhang, R. Gerdes, and J. C. Comiso (2008), Recent radical shifts of atmospheric circulations and rapid changes in Arctic climate system, Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, L22701, doi:10.1029/2008GL035607.

Jeff Masters

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.