Climate Change Editors' Highlights

Polar Stratosphere Resolves North Atlantic Jet “Tug of War”

Getting the polar stratosphere right is critical in the simulation of North Atlantic climate change, which is shaped by the interaction of Arctic Amplification and tropical upper tropospheric warming.

Source: Geophysical Research Letters


In recent years, the breakdown of the “polar vortex” has often made the evening news, to explain unusually cold snaps over North America. The vortex is a climatological feature of the atmospheric circulation that is associated with the temperature gradient, or difference, between the tropics (low latitudes) and the pole (high latitudes): in winter, when this temperature difference is largest, it makes for a strong mid-latitude jet, of winds blowing west to east, which corral the cold air near the pole.

Warming of the atmosphere can affect the jet in two contrasting ways, hence the reference to a “tug-of-war”. As the tropics warm and expand, they push the jet poleward. But because the Arctic is warming more than the rest of the hemisphere, a phenomenon known as “Arctic amplification”, the equator-to-pole temperature difference is overall reduced, weakening the jet.

Up until now, modelling studies were marred by a lack in consistency, both in terms of their experimental design and the responses identified. Peings et al. [2019] explore an important factor resolving this lack of consistency, which typically results in the “tug-of-war”: the polar stratosphere. With this key component appropriately represented in a climate model, they find that in fact, in wintertime, upper tropospheric tropical warming and Arctic amplification do not oppose each other, but rather, concur to weaken the jet.

Citation: Peings, Y., Cattiaux, J., & Magnusdottir, G. [2019]. The polar stratosphere as an arbiter of the projected tropical versus polar tug of war. Geophysical Research Letters, 46, 9261– 9270.

—Alessandra Giannini, Editor, Geophysical Research Letters

Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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