Recently a video has been circulating of Paul Beckwith from the University of Ottawa explaining how the northern and southern polar jet streams linked briefly across the equator this week.
Climate scientist Dr Caroline Holmes, who specialises in atmospheric dynamics, provides her independent view on this event below:
The essence of this video is the claim that the northern and southern hemisphere jet streams have connected via air crossing the equator, for a brief period of time; that this is ‘unprecedented’; and that it heralds dangerous consequences. To give my thoughts, I’ll address some of the concepts that come up in the video and some issues of language or terminology that are crucial for understanding it, and try to give an answer on whether I think this is a worrying development or not.
1) What’s so special about the equator?
Crash course covering two aspects: one is thermal, i.e., its to do with heat. As we know, the equator receives more heat from the sun than the poles do. Therefore it’s warmer. The atmosphere ‘tries’ to redistribute this heat from the equator to the poles, which is the reason for a lot of the circulation (i.e. large-scale movement of air and water) that we see in the ocean and atmosphere. Note, that in the northern hemisphere (I’ll call it NH from now on!) summer, the maximum heat from the sun is actually felt slightly north of the equator, and in southern hemisphere (…SH…) summer, slightly to the south of the equator. So, actually the ‘heat redistribution’ in the atmosphere is really from about 10°N to both poles in NH summer (SH winter) and from 10°S to both poles in SH summer. The other special thing about the equator is to do with the fact that the earth is a rotating sphere. So every point on the earth’s surface is rotating, once a day, around an axis that runs from the north to south pole. At the equator, this rotation requires covering a lot more distance (a circle of bigger circumference) than it does near the poles. So as air moves away from the equator (and indeed anywhere) it’s subject to forces linked to this rotation. (I’ll stop there because that’s a whole ‘nother blog post!)
2) What is a jet stream?
The term ‘jet stream’ typically refers to a tight (i.e. short north-south extent) band of very fast winds, high in the atmosphere. We usually use the wind speed at 250 hPa (i.e. the level in the atmosphere where pressure is 250 hPa; about 16 km, very roughly speaking) to describe it, although in some jet streams winds are fast near the Earth’s surface too. At the simple level, each hemisphere has one, or two, jet streams. One is on the edge of the tropics, and one is in mid-latitudes (broadly about 30-60°N). Sometimes, or indeed often, the two combine. The jet streams fundamentally exist because of the two things I already mentioned above; the rotation of the earth, and the fact that the atmosphere tries to distribute heat from equator to pole. In the time-average picture, they are nice and smooth, and largely west to east, although not entirely so, and in the NH especially they are not a continuous band around the world; they are split up by, in particular, the Rocky mountains and the Eurasia continent. As time varies, however, the jets have big waves in them; they break up; they shift from north to south; they pulse in strength. They are hugely variable.
3) Is the climate system normally ‘stable and predictable’ and now becoming ‘chaotic’?
The atmosphere certainly isn’t. One of the most fundamental things about the atmosphere is that it is a chaotic system. You’ve probably heard the ‘butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane around the world’ saying. It’s that. Or, less dramatically; tiny changes in the atmosphere in one place can push it into a different state from the one it was heading to. It’s why we can’t do weather forecasts perfectly; because without knowing the state (by which I mean its temperature, how much water it contains, how fast it is moving and in what direction) of every point in the atmosphere, perfectly, we can’t be sure we are on the right path. The climate system on the other hand is a much trickier issue. I’m not even sure what the video is trying to explain regarding this. There are aspects of the climate system that are certainly predictable (seasons, for example. And they aren’t going to be eroding in a hurry, because they rely on changes of the earth’s orbit around the sun and the angle of its axis, which happen slowly. I.e. 10s to 100s of thousands of years slowly.) The stability of the climate system is a genuine question. Imagine a ball on a slope.
If I shove it gently, it returns to where it was. This is a ‘stable’ condition. If I shove it hard, however, it might go over the ‘hill’ to the right; it will not return to where it was. This is what is meant by unstable. A related concept is ‘tipping points’; if it goes over that hill, it might end up in another ‘bowl’; but it has been tipped into another type of behaviour (in this case, a different area to roll around in).
4) What is climatology?
Climatology is a very broad field. It’s the study of climate. For example, it’s a term that could probably cover people who study the output from climate models about what will happen in the next century; look at observational data gathered over the past 100 years; examine tree rings to try and work out what has happened to climate over the last several millennia; use mathematical techniques to explore what will happen to earth’s climate, and so on. There are better, or more detailed description for all these jobs, but climatologist is not wrong. The key thing is that a professor of climatology need not be (and in fact, probably is not) an expert on atmospheric dynamics, i.e., the movements in the atmosphere and what causes them, which is what this is all about.
5) What is this graphic?
It’s a beautiful visualisation of atmospheric conditions. It’s always worth being aware that first, the data that went into this is not as gorgeous as the end product! You can toggle the ‘grid’ button to show a point at every location where there is real data from the forecast model; the rest is interpolation between these points. And second, our eyes aren’t that good at interpreting information like this (sorry!) and are naturally drawn to colour boundaries. So, it’s easy to over-interpret patches of a different colour as indicating something very different. Now, as for some specific questions from the video, I’ll first address the idea that the jet stream should get, and is getting, ‘wavier’ as the atmosphere gets warmer. This argument is still, as far as I know, really controversial. I discussed this issue extensively during my PhD. The theory relies on a chain of about five causal relationships (i.e., A causes B, B causes C, and so on) in a chaotic system. Some of these are fairly convincing and some are not. The data providing evidence of this use information from a fairly short time series (30 years, which for finding robust results about anything other than time-average is too short). The original paper can be found here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2012GL051000/full. However, later papers examining the claim across different datasets, and for various measures of ‘waviness’, don’t find strong evidence for such a pattern (e.g. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/…/10…/grl.50880/abstract). Therefore, citing it as fact is very misleading. The second question is whether something remarkable just happened, and whether it can be described as ‘the jet crossing the equator’. Flow crossing the equator is not surprising; as I’ve mentioned above, the atmospheric flow is very variable. A colleague at Monash University kindly quickly checked a month of reanalysis data (essentially, this blends observations- from the surface, satellites, and upper air measurements from weather balloons- with the best available weather forecast models, to produce a historical ‘best guess’ of what the atmosphere has looked like over recent decades). She found that the wind speeds with flow across the equator of the speed seen here (about 20 metres per second) aren’t that rare. So as above; flow across the equator isn’t astonishing. Can this be described as the jet crossing the equator? Tricky; not all fast upper level winds are jet streams, and in addition the jet streams are generally a lot faster than this (about 100 metres per second). So then, is this behaviour where there appears to be some linkage between the NH and SH jet surprising (even ‘unprecedented’)? Unfortunately I can’t answer that right now! Links like this are easy to see by eye, but harder to define when you look for it in real data, so it wouldn’t be a totally trivial job to find out. However, I think that there is no reason why it would be surprising; given that the jets move around, and airflow crosses the equator. For the same reason I don’t think it’s a particularly meaningful event. Finally, it’s worth saying, the jet streams have been exhibiting weird behaviour recently. The winter of 2013/14 was really remarkable in the NH, for example, and the UK met office produced a great report about the storms and floods that occurred in the UK as a result as well as what was happening in Canada at the time. So I think it’s important to understand what the jets are doing, and why, and whether it’s new. The changing temperature of our atmosphere due to climate change is hugely worrying, and how this might impact the jet streams, particularly in the northern hemisphere, is still poorly understood. However, in conclusion, I don’t think this particular instance is panic worthy.
Dr Caroline Holmes gained her PhD in climate science from the University of Reading, where her thesis investigated the effects of Arctic change (warming and sea ice loss) on mid-latitude climate, in particular the jet streams. She now works on understanding the impacts of climate change in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh.