Statements often appear in the media about suggesting that more extreme mid-latitude storms will result from global warming. For instance, western Norway was recently battered by an unusually strong storm which triggered many such speculations. But scientific papers on how global warming may affect the mid-latitude storms give a more mixed picture. In a recent paper by Bengtsson & Hodges (2006), simulations with the ECHAM5 Global Climate Model (GCM) were analysed, but they found no increase in the number of mid-latitude storms world-wide. Another study by Leckebusch et al. (2006) showed that the projection of storm characteristics was model-dependent. (Note that the dynamics of tropical and mid-latitude (often called ‘extra-tropical’) storms involve different processes, and tropical storms have been discussed in previous posts here on RC: here, here, here, and here).
The factors that control this are often confounding and so make this a tricky prediction. Simple arguments based on the expected ‘polar amplification‘ and the fact that the surface temperature gradient between the tropics and the poles will likely decrease would reduce the scope for ‘baroclinic instability’ (the main generator of mid-latitudes storms). However, there are also increases in the upper troposphere/lower stratospheric gradients (due to the stratosphere cooling and the troposphere warming) and that has been shown to lead to increases in wind speeds at the surface. And finally, although latent heat release (from condensing water vapour) is not a fundamental driver of mid-latitude storms, it does play a role and that is likely to increase the intensity of the storms since there is generally more water vapour available in warmer world. It should also be clear that for any one locality, a shift in the storm tracks (associated with phenomena like the NAO or the sea ice edge) will often be more of an issue than the overall change in storm statistics.
I believe that the jury is still out on the extra-tropical storm issue because the climate models are still limited in their ability to represent them adequately. For instance, wind speeds are not well captured by the models (Leckebusch et al., 2006), and modelled key characteristics of the cyclones were sensitive to the models’ spatial resolution: Work by Jung et al. (also published in Quart. J. R. Met. Soc. (2006), vol 132, p. 1839-1857) suggested that several key characteristics of extra-tropical cyclones in the global ECMWF numerical weather model are highly sensitive to the horizontal resolution. This is also acknowledged in a recent paper by Wernli & Schwierz (2006; J. Atm. Sci., vol 63, p. 2486). However, for some regions, Jung et al. noted that model problems were insensitive to the horizontal resolution employed in their model experiments. Ulbrich (EMS/ECAC06) also found a dependency of the storm statistics in re-analysis with different spatial resolution (the picture from GCMs was similar to the re-analysis, provided the re-analysis was carried out with similar spatial resolution). It was also concluded that the different models analysed gave a similar large-scale picture of how extra-tropical storms respond to a global warming: the frequency of weak storms decline and the strong storms are projected to become more frequent. The sensitivity to resolution is understandable, because while an entire storm system can be very well resolved (they can be 1000 miles across), there are very sharp features at the fronts (the comma shaped clouds) which are a challenge even for weather forecast models to get right. Secondary ‘cyclogenesis’ (where a new storm is ‘spun off’ from an existing storm) is also something that improves markedly as resolution increases.
One can try and address that by using a high-resolution regional climate model (RCM), forced by simulations from a coarser GCM at its boundaries (a process called ‘nesting’). The RCMs provide a similar description of the minimum sea level pressure (SLP – a parameter related to wind storms and the cyclone depth) as the GCMs, irrespective of their spatial resolution (The KNMI scenarios 06 Fig. 6-3). RCMs, however, are not completely free to do their own thing, but must follow the GCMs, at least on the larger scales. So should we really expect an RCM to produce a different storm climate? What implications would a substantially different cyclone climate in the RCM have for the larger-scales and the energy transport? Cyclones play an important role in the poleward energy in the mid-latitudes (‘eddy-transport’), which ultimately has a bearing for the large-scale circulation. Since cyclones involve significant parts of the hydrological cycle, such as evaporation, moisture transport, condensation and precipitation, a different cyclone climate in an RCM and GCM would presumably present inconsistencies for the water budget. Furthermore, a paper by Peng et al. (2006) suggests that eddy forcing may be responsble for large-scale response to changes in the sea surface temperatures. In other words, the cyclone climate affects the large-scale circulation, and a widely different behaviour in the RCM and the GCM would imply an inconsistency.
One robust result among most GCMs is a poleward shift in the position of the storm tracks (Bengtsson & Hodges , 2006; Yin ,2006). It is important to keep in mind that for the local communities concerned, it is changes in the position of the storm tracks that is most important, rather than the global number of storms. Another robust result is that the NAO in the models tends to shift more towards its positive phase (stronger westerly winds) as greenhouse gases rise, tending to increase winter storms coming ashore in Northern Europe, and decrease them around the Mediterranean (Miller et al, 2006).
A conceptual picture of processes affecting mid-latitude is: One, that latitudinal variations in the temperature and air flow give rise to ‘baroclinic instability’; Second, the humidity of the air also plays a role as the latter influences the energy budget. An analogy for the two can be a sloping surface: the former is the how steep the slope is and the latter the height of the drop. Sharp spatial temperature contrasts and horizontal wind shear favour an unstable growth of the storm system.
As we mentioned above, global warming generally implies a ‘polar amplification’ (stronger warming near the North Pole), and so the average poleward temperature gradient is expected to diminish, leading to less unstable conditions on average. On the other hand, a warmer Arctic may imply less sea-ice and a greater heat loss to space, which must be balanced by heat transport from the lower latitudes, a poleward heat transport which may involve the mid-latitude storms (ice insulates the ocean from the atmosphere and keeps the temperatures down). Increased temperatures also implies higher humidity, and thus a higher capacity for energy conversion through condensation – the energy fuel of convection. So it isn’t a simple picture and one should be wary of simple statements on the topic.