I’m not sure about you, but growing up in school, I remember being shown diagrams of earth processes to facilitate my understanding of how the earth works. These diagrams were relatively simple to understand. For example, taking a look at the water cycle precipitation falls from the sky onto the land--or in bodies of water--which then evaporates into clouds which then precipitate; a balanced cyclic sequence of events. But what I’ve learned since then is that these processes aren’t as tame as they’re made out to be. Each aspect of the earth (land, ocean, atmosphere) is a complex beast that has many forces at play within itself as well as interacting with each other to produce the weather and climate patterns we’re familiar with around the world. Today, I want to dive deeper into one of these patterns.
Atmospheric Oscillations are something I touched upon in the third blog post of the Cost of Climate Change series, but as a refresher, these bad boys are naturally occurring ocean & atmospheric patterns over different locations and timescales. One you might be familiar with is the ENSO (El Niño / Southern Oscillation) comprised of El Niño and La Niña. These are shifting phases of warm and cool oceanic surface water in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean which can cause some predictable effects in regional climates. I say some predictable effects since each distinct phase can have a different intensity, altering its “expected” impacts in different regions. It is also important to note that interactions with land, ocean and the atmosphere are dynamic and there are countless mechanisms occurring simultaneously. So, the effects of an El Niño in a specific phase could differ from a previous instance, however there will generally be similar weather and climate responses.
I promised you in the last post that I’d discuss the Beast from the East, but how does this relate to atmospheric oscillations? Well, what happened in February 2018 over Northern Europe was the impact of a “polar vortex” resulting from a negative Arctic Oscillation (AO) along with something called Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW). That’s a lot to process for one sentence so let me break things down.
When the AO is in a negative phase, higher pressure in the atmosphere above the northern arctic contrasts with lower pressure in the mid-latitudes which disrupts (in other terms, weakens) the jet stream. This causes more waves/“kinks” in the jet stream that then help pull cold arctic air southward. In 2018 along with the AO shifting slightly negative, a SSW event occurred where the polar stratosphere experienced a “rapid” increase in temperature causing the disruption of the normal wind flow in the troposphere and provided another factor in weakening (“kinking”) the jet stream.
What resulted was Anticyclone Harmut, better known as the Beast from the East. A cold blast of air along with “lake effect” snow from the warm waters around the British Isles brought snow up to 4ft and temperatures down to -12ºC in some locations. Areas in northern Europe that weren’t particularly familiar with the effects of such snow and cold--such as the UK and Ireland--went into gridlock. The growth of the UK economy in the first quarter of 2018 fell 0.3% down to 0.1% which was the lowest growth rate since 2012. The UK alone lost an approximate £1 billion per day for the worst three days of the event due to infrastructure damage, transport losses, amongst other impacts.
Car in snow drift in North Yorkshire. The Times
Scientists have said that the AO slipping into its negative phase is becoming more common with the effects of climate change, which is a foreboding finding for mid-latitude regions impacted by the resulting polar vortices. The higher rate of polar vortex impacts might provide a need to reinforce infrastructure and transport systems to mitigate these consequences, but this won’t prevent their presence and economic impacts should still be expected.
And as I end with another sombre finish, look out for the next blog post in the Cost of Climate Change series in a few week’s time where I’ll focus on another atmospheric oscillation. This time looking into the effects it has on Australian drought and wildfires!
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