Environmental Research Web is among several outlets running with a Potsdam Institute for Climate (PIK) press release about a forthcoming dynamical analysis by Petoukhov et al., supporting the suspicion many have had that recent persistent extremes are connected to climate change. Rahmstorf and Schellnhuber are on it, and it’s going into PNAS, so while it’s not settled science it has an impressive pedigree.
It’s Petoukhov, V., Rahmstorf, S., Petri, S., Schellnhuber, H. J. (2013): Quasi-resonant amplification of planetary waves and recent Northern Hemisphere weather extremes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Early Edition) [doi:10.1073/pnas.1222000110]
Weblink to the article
(once it is published): www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1222000110
Here’s the release:
02/2572013 – The world has suffered from severe regional weather extremes in recent years, such as the heat wave in the United States in 2011 or the one in Russia 2010 coinciding with the unprecedented Pakistan flood. Behind these devastating individual events there is a common physical cause, propose scientists of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). The study will be published this week in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and suggests that man-made climate change repeatedly disturbs the patterns of atmospheric flow around the globe’s Northern hemisphere through a subtle resonance mechanism.
Meridional windfield over four different timespans.
“An important part of the global air motion in the mid-latitudes of the Earth normally takes the form of waves wandering around the planet, oscillating between the tropical and the Arctic regions. So when they swing up, these waves suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the US, and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic,” explains lead author Vladimir Petoukhov.
“What we found is that during several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks. So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays. In fact, we observe a strong amplification of the usually weak, slowly moving component of these waves,” says Petoukhov. Time is critical here: two or three days of 30 degrees Celsius are no problem, but twenty or more days lead to extreme heat stress. Since many ecosystems and cities are not adapted to this, prolonged hot periods can result in a high death toll, forest fires, and dramatic harvest losses.
Anomalous surface temperatures are disturbing the air flows
Climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning does not mean uniform global warming – in the Arctic, the relative increase of temperatures, amplified by the loss of snow and ice, is higher than on average. This in turn reduces the temperature difference between the Arctic and, for example, Europe, yet temperature differences are a main driver of air flow. Additionally, continents generally warm and cool more readily than the oceans. “These two factors are crucial for the mechanism we detected,” says Petoukhov. “They result in an unnatural pattern of the mid-latitude air flow, so that for extended periods the slow synoptic waves get trapped.”
The authors of the study developed equations that describe the wave motions in the extra-tropical atmosphere and show under what conditions those waves can grind to a halt and get amplified. They tested their assumptions using standard daily weather data from the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP). During recent periods in which several major weather extremes occurred, the trapping and strong amplification of particular waves – like “wave seven” (which has seven troughs and crests spanning the globe) – was indeed observed. The data show an increase in the occurrence of these specific atmospheric patterns, which is statistically significant at the 90 percent confidence level.
The probability of extremes increases – but other factors come in as well
“Our dynamical analysis helps to explain the increasing number of novel weather extremes. It complements previous research that already linked such phenomena to climate change, but did not yet identify a mechanism behind it,” says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK and co-author of the study. “This is quite a breakthrough, even though things are not at all simple – the suggested physical process increases the probability of weather extremes, but additional factors certainly play a role as well, including natural variability.” Also, the 32-year period studied in the project provides a good indication of the mechanism involved, yet is too short for definite conclusions.
Nevertheless, the study significantly advances the understanding of the relation between weather extremes and man-made climate change. Scientists were surprised by how far outside past experience some of the recent extremes have been. The new data show that the emergence of extraordinary weather is not just a linear response to the mean warming trend, and the proposed mechanism could explain that.
Emphasis added. Given the team involved, it’s unlikely that there are obvious serious flaws with this paper. This could be a major result.
UPDATE: The egregious Pat Michaels claims in Forbes that
[Petoukhov et al] generated a lot of news traffic.
At precisely the same time, two University of Melbourne scientists published a paper in Geophysical Research letters, studying virtually the same data and finding little significant change. Further, they found that any changes in these patterns, known as atmospheric “blocking”, under which weather tends to stagnate, were small compared to natural year-to-year variability. In what is always a bad sign for solid science, they found that any connections between blocking frequency and global warming are highly dependent upon the methodology they used. Bottom line: they couldn’t find much of a signal, and even if they did, they weren’t sure what it all meant.
News traffic? Zilch.
The difference is that death and destruction sell ad copy, while, as the story goes, “plane lands on time” doesn’t. But, in climate change, there’s a remarkable disconnect between what people read and what they think.
Well, there is another difference: a result is generally more interesting than a null result, except to certain sections of the commentariat. A certain Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, has a long string of null results to his name and flogs them endlessly.
Of course another common trick is to misrepresent the contents of a study. So it would be helpful if Michaels deigned to, you know, tell us the author or title of the paper.
Maybe he even has a point, like the stopped clock telling the right time. Who knows? Does anybody know what paper he is referring to?
Anyway, the publication and celebration of null results is a peculiar feature of climate science. Outsiders seem quick to confuse “no proven link” with “proven no link”, which I suppose is the point.