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Heat Waves (4) A Climate Case Study:

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:26 AM GMT on July 19, 2011

Heat Waves (4) A Climate Case Study:

In the last article I wrote that the extreme events of 2011 were providing us with the opportunity to think about climate and how to cope with a warming world. The U.S. is experiencing an extreme heat event this week (Masters @ WU). This heat wave is the consequence of a strong, stationary high pressure system over the central U.S., and it will move to the east over the next few days. Back on July 14th The Capital Weather Gang did a nice write up on the forecast of the heat wave. At the end of this blog are links to my previous blogs on heat waves and human health.

When thinking about weather, climate, and extreme events an important idea is “persistence.” For example, a heat wave occurs when there are persistent high temperatures. Persistent weather patterns occur when high and low pressure systems get large and stuck; that is, they don’t move. In the Figure below, you need to imagine North America and the United States. There is a high pressure center over the proverbial Heartland. With blue arrows I have drawn the flow of air around the high pressure system, and in this case moist air. There is moisture coming from the Gulf of Mexico and, in fact on the date when this was drawn, from the Pacific. This is common in the summer to see both the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific as sources of continental moisture.

Figure 1: Schematic of a high pressure system over the central United States in July. While generic, this is drawn to represent some of the specifics of 2011. The green-shaded area is where there have been floods in 2011. The brown-shaded area represents sustained drought in the southern part of the nation.

At the center of this high pressure system there is a suppression of rain, because the air is moving downward. This sets up a situation where the surface heats from the Sun’s energy. There is not much mixing and cooling, because of the suppression of the upward motion that produces rain. Hence, if this high pressure system gets stuck, then there is persistent heat. This is a classic summer heat wave.

Let’s think about it some more. There is lot of moisture being drawn around the edge of the high pressure system, and this moisture contributes to the discomfort of people. People – just a short aside about people: if we think about heat and health, then we are concerned about people’s ability to cool themselves. It is more difficult to cool people when it is humid because sweat does not evaporate. Suppose that in addition to this moisture, there is a region where the ground is soaked with water from flooding. Then on top of already moist air coming from the Gulf, there is local evaporation into the air being warmed by the Sun. If on the interior of the high, where the rain is suppressed, there is hot, wet air, then it becomes dangerous heat.

It’s not easy to derive a number that describes dangerous heat. But in much of the eastern U.S. a number that somehow combines temperature and humidity is useful. Meteorologists often use the heat index. It’s the summer time version of “it’s 98 degrees, but it feels like 105.” For moist climates, the heat index is one version of the “it feels like” temperature. Jeff Masters tells me that in Newton, Iowa yesterday, July 17, 2011, the heat index was 126 degrees F. (see here, and 131 F in Knoxville, Iowa on July 18)

Another measure of heat and humidity is the dew point; that is, the temperature at which dew forms, and effectively limits the nighttime low. The dew points in Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are currently very high and setting records. Here is a map of dew point for July 19, 2011.

Figure 2: Exceptionally high dew points centered on Iowa.

Now if I was a public health official, and I was trying to understand how a warming planet might impact my life, then here is how I would think about it. First, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific are going to be warmer, and hence, there will be more humid air. This will mean, with regard to human health for the central U.S., heat waves will become more dangerous, without necessarily becoming hotter. It is also reasonable to expect heat waves will become more frequent and last longer, because those persistent, stuck high pressure systems are, in part, forced by the higher sea surface temperatures. If I am a public health official here is my algorithm – heat waves are already important to my life, and they are likely to get more dangerous, more frequent, and of longer duration. But by how much? Do I need to know by how much before I decide on a plan for action?

If I think about the air being more humid, then I might expect to see trends in the heat index. I might expect to see trends in dew points, and trends in the nighttime minimum temperatures getting higher. (That’s where a greenhouse effect really matters.) I worry about persistent heat, warm nights, and the inability of people and buildings to cool themselves. I worry about their being dangerous heat in places where people and emergency rooms are not used to dangerous heat – not acclimated to heat – not looking for heat-related illness.

Let’s go back to the figure. Rain is suppressed in the middle of the high pressure system, but around the edge of the high pressure system it will rain; there will be storms. (see Figure 3 at the end) The air around the edge of high is warm and very wet. Wet air is energetic air, and it is reasonable to expect local severe storms. (See Severe Storm on Lake Michigan) And if the high pressure is persistent, stuck, then days of extreme weather are possible. If this pattern sets up, then there is increased likelihood of flooding. If I am that public health official, then I am alerted to the possibility of more extreme weather and the dangers thereof. But, again, can the increase of extreme weather be quantified? Do I need to quantify it before I decide on a plan of action?

Still with the figure - what about that region of extended drought and the heat from the high pressure system? Dehydration becomes a more important issue. As a public health official, I start to see the relation of the heat event to other aspects of the weather, the climate. I see the relation to drought. I see the flood, and it’s relation to the winter snow pack and spring rains.

So what I have presented here is to look at the local mechanisms of the weather – what are the basic underlying physics responsible for hot and cold, wet and dry – for moist air? If I stick to these basic physics, and let the climate model frame the more complex regional and global picture, what can I say about the future? Do I have to have a formal prediction to take action? Here in 2011, I see drought and flood and hot weather and warm oceans that interact together to make a period of sustained, dangerous heat. It does not have to “set a record” to convey the reality of the warming earth. It tells me the type of event that is likely to come more often, of longer duration, and of, perhaps, of greater intensity. If I am a public health planner, then I can know this with some certainty. The question becomes, how do I use that information in my planning?


Figure 3: Radar loop showing precipitation around the edge of the large high pressure system in the middle of the continent. July 19, 2011.

Previous Blogs on Heat Waves

Hot in Denver: Heat Waves (1)

Heat Waves (2): Heat and Humans

Heat Waves (3): Role of Global Warming

Climate Change Heat

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