I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 4:22 PM GMT on October 14, 2013
Wobbles in the Barriers: Arctic Oscillation (4)
This is a continuation of my series on the Arctic Oscillation / North Atlantic Oscillation. Links to background material and previous entries are at the end.
In the last entry I suggested that if you were on a bridge overlooking a swiftly flowing creek then you would notice that twigs floating in the water did not move across the current. They are carried downstream along the edge of the current. The purpose of that comparison was to demonstrate how fast-moving, concentrated flows have the effect of isolating one side of the creek from the other. This is true in the creek, and it is also true about jet streams in the atmosphere.
One way to understand the Arctic Oscillation is to think of it as the variation of an atmospheric jet stream. For the Arctic Oscillation the jet stream of interest is the southern edge of vortex of air that circulates around the North Pole (see previous entry). Air inside the vortex often has characteristics different from air outside it. Intuitively for the Arctic, there is colder air on the side toward the pole. If you look at trace gases, like ozone, they are different across the edge of the vortex. The takeaway idea is that the edge of the vortex is a barrier. It’s not a perfect barrier, but the air on one side is largely separated from the air on the other side. In this blog, I describe the difference between a strong and a weak vortex – which is the same as the difference between the positive and negative phases of the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation.
Figure 1: This figure is from the point of view of someone looking down from above at the North Pole (NP). Compare this perspective to Figure 1 in previous blog. This represents a strong, circular vortex centered over the pole, which encloses cold air, represented as blue. The line surrounding the cold air is the jet stream or the edge of the vortex.
Figure 1 shows an idealized schematic of the North Pole as viewed from above. This is the strong vortex case, when there is exceptionally low pressure at the pole. Low pressure is associated with counterclockwise rotation in the Northern Hemisphere. This direction of rotation is called cyclonic. This strong vortex case is the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation. During this phase, the vortex aligns strongly with the rotation of the Earth, and there are relatively few wobbles of the edge of the vortex – the jet stream. I drew on the figure two points, X and Y. In this case, the point X is hot and the point Y is cold. It is during this phase when it is relatively warm and moist over, for example, the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Figure 2 compares a strong vortex and a weak vortex. In both cases, the circulation around a central point is counterclockwise or cyclonic. However, in the weak vortex case, the vortex does not align as strongly with the rotation of the Earth and there are places where the edge of vortex extends southwards. The vortex appears displaced from the pole; it is not centered over the pole.
Figure 2: Examples of a strong, circular vortex and a weak, more wavy vortex. See text for a more complete description.
Whether the vortex is stronger or weaker is determined by the atmospheric pressure at the pole. In the winter, an important factor that determines the circulation is the cooling that occurs at polar latitudes during the polar night.
What determines the waviness or wobbles at the edge of this vortex? The structure at the edge of vortex is strongly influenced by several factors. These factors include the structure of the high-pressure centers that are over the oceans and continents to the south of jet stream. One could easily imagine a strong high-pressure center over, for example, Iceland, pushing northward at the edge of the vortex. This might push a lobe of air characteristic of the middle latitude Atlantic Ocean northward. Since the edge of the vortex is something of a barrier, this high-pressure system would distort the edge of the vortex and, perhaps, push the vortex off the pole. This would appear as a displacement of the vortex and its cold air over, for example, Russia. If the high grew and faded, then this would appear as wobbles of the vortex.
Other factors that influence the waviness at the edge of the vortex are the mountain ranges and the thermal contrast between the continents and the oceans. The impact of mountains is easy to understand. Returning to the creek comparison used above, the mountains are like a boulder in the stream. The water bulges around and over the boulder; the air in the atmosphere bulges around and over the mountain ranges. The Rocky Mountains in the western half of North America are perfect examples of where there are often wobbles in the atmospheric jet stream.
Figure 3: This figure is from the point of view of someone looking down from above at the North Pole (NP). This represents a weak, wavy, wobbly vortex displaced from the pole. The vortex encloses cold air, represented as blue. The line surrounding the cold air is the jet stream or the edge of the vortex. (definition of vortex)
Figure 3 shows an idealized schematic of the North Pole as viewed from above. This is the weak vortex case, when the low pressure at the pole is not as low as average and the pressure is much higher than the strong vortex case of Figure 1. This weak vortex case is the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation. During this phase, the alignment of the vortex with the rotation of the Earth is less prominent, and there are wobbles of the edge of the vortex – the jet stream. In this case, the point X is cold and the point Y is hot. It is during this phase where it is relatively cool and dry (but potentially snowy) over, for example, the eastern part of the United States.
These figures help to explain the prominent signal of the Arctic Oscillation discussed in the earlier entries (specifically, this blog). That is, when the vortex is weak and wobbly, then there are excursions of colder air to the south and warmer air to the north. This appears as waviness and is an important pattern of variability - warm, cold, warm, cold.
The impact of the changes in the structure of edge of the vortex does not end with these persistent periods of regional warm and cold spells. The edge of the vortex or the jet stream is also important for steering storms. Minimally, therefore, these changes in the edge of the vortex are expected to change the characteristics of how storms move. Simply, if the edge of the vortex has large northward and southward extensions, then storms take a longer time to move, for example, across the United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. In the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation they just whip across. In the negative phase, the storms wander around a bit. A more complete discussion of this aspect of the role of the Arctic Oscillation will be in the next entry. (Note use of dramatic tension and the cliffhanger strategy of the serial.)
Barriers in the Atmosphere
Definitions and Some Background
August Arctic Oscillation presentation
CPC Climate Glossary “The Arctic Oscillation is a pattern in which atmospheric pressure at polar and middle latitudes fluctuates between negative and positive phases.”
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.