In many ways, the summer of 2018 marked a turning point, when the effects of climate change — perhaps previously on the periphery of public consciousness — suddenly took center stage. Record high temperatures spread all over the Northern Hemisphere. Wildfires raged out of control. And devastating floods were frequent.
Michael Mann, climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, along with colleagues, has published a new study that connects these disruptive weather extremes with a fundamental change in how the jet stream is behaving during the summer. Linked to the warming climate, the study suggests this change in the atmosphere’s steering current is making these extremes occur more frequently, with greater intensity, and for longer periods of time.
The study projects this erratic jet stream behavior will increase in the future, leading to more severe heat waves, droughts, fires and floods.
The jet stream is changing not only because the planet is warming up but also because the Arctic is warming faster than the mid-latitudes, the study says. The jet stream is driven by temperature contrasts, and these contrasts are shrinking. The result is a slower jet stream with more wavy peaks and troughs that Mann and his study co-authors ascribe to a process known as “quasi-resonant amplification.”
The altered jet stream behavior is important because when it takes deep excursions to the south in the summer, it sets up a collision between cool air from the north and the summer’s torrid heat, often spurring excessive rain. But when the jet stream retreats to the north, bulging heat domes form underneath it, leading to record heat and dry spells.
If the excursions in the jet stream endure long enough, it can then set the stage for floods where the jet dips, and wildfires and drought where it ascends.
“What made these events [in the summer of 2018] so devastating was not just the extreme nature of the meteorological episodes but their persistence,” Mann said in a blog post discussing the implications of the new study.
The study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, finds that these quasi-resonant amplification events — in which the jet stream exhibits this extreme behavior during the summer — are predicted to increase by 50 percent this century if emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue unchecked.
Whereas previous work conducted by Mann and others had identified a signal for an increase in these events, this study for the first time examined how they may change in the future using climate model simulations.
“Looking at a large number of different computer models, we found interesting differences,” said Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a co-author of the study, in a news release. “Distinct climate models provide quite diverging forecasts for future climate resonance events. However, on average they show a clear increase in such events.”
In an email, Mann said climate models aren’t fully capturing the phenomenon, and, for this reason, we should expect weather extremes “beyond what is typically projected” into the future.
Mann added the existing analyses that attempt to uncover the role of climate change in recent extreme events “are under-attributing the role that climate change is having … because they are not capturing the key mechanism responsible.”
Mann said in his blog commentary that he was particularly struck by the jet stream behavior in the summer. “In summer 2018, I would argue, that signal was no longer subtle,” he said. “It played out in real time on our television screens and newspaper headlines in the form of an unprecedented hemisphere-wide pattern of extreme floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires.”
Although model projections suggest these extreme jet stream patterns will increase as the climate warms, the study concluded that their increase can be slowed if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced along with particulate pollution in developing countries. “[T]he future is still very much in our hands when it comes to dangerous and damaging summer weather extremes,” Mann said. “It’s simply a matter of our willpower to transition quickly from fossil fuels to renewable energy.”
Jennifer Francis, a climate researcher at Rutgers University who has published work exhibiting changing jet stream behavior because of climate change, found the results of this new study compelling. “This work takes a big step toward understanding the spate of deadly extreme weather events during recent summers — heat waves, floods and droughts,” she said in an email.