Henk A. Dijkstra
The idea that under the same external forcing conditions, the climate system is able to have several (statistical) equilibrium states is both fascinating and worrying: fascinating because the interaction of different positive and negative feedbacks can then lead to different large-scale reorganizations of the transport of heat (and other properties) over the globe; worrying because perturbations on the current equilibrium state can then unexpectedly cause transitions in large-scale transport properties, with potential disastrous changes in regional weather conditions. In this article, the development of the idea to explain peculiar climate changes using multiple equilibrium states is presented.
Stefano Tibaldi and Franco Molteni
The atmospheric circulation in the mid-latitudes of both hemispheres is usually dominated by westerly winds and by planetary-scale and shorter-scale synoptic waves, moving mostly from west to east. A remarkable and frequent exception to this “usual” behavior is atmospheric blocking. Blocking occurs when the usual zonal flow is hindered by the establishment of a large-amplitude, quasi-stationary, high-pressure meridional circulation structure which “blocks” the flow of the westerlies and the progression of the atmospheric waves and disturbances embedded in them. Such blocking structures can have lifetimes varying from a few days to several weeks in the most extreme cases. Their presence can strongly affect the weather of large portions of the mid-latitudes, leading to the establishment of anomalous meteorological conditions. These can take the form of strong precipitation episodes or persistent anticyclonic regimes, leading in turn to floods, extreme cold spells, heat waves, or short-lived droughts. Even air quality can be strongly influenced by the establishment of atmospheric blocking, with episodes of high concentrations of low-level ozone in summer and of particulate matter and other air pollutants in winter, particularly in highly populated urban areas.
Atmospheric blocking has the tendency to occur more often in winter and in certain longitudinal quadrants, notably the Euro-Atlantic and the Pacific sectors of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, blocking episodes are generally less frequent, and the longitudinal localization is less pronounced than in the Northern Hemisphere.
Blocking has aroused the interest of atmospheric scientists since the middle of the last century, with the pioneering observational works of Berggren, Bolin, Rossby, and Rex, and has become the subject of innumerable observational and theoretical studies. The purpose of such studies was originally to find a commonly accepted structural and phenomenological definition of atmospheric blocking. The investigations went on to study blocking climatology in terms of the geographical distribution of its frequency of occurrence and the associated seasonal and inter-annual variability. Well into the second half of the 20th century, a large number of theoretical dynamic works on blocking formation and maintenance started appearing in the literature. Such theoretical studies explored a wide range of possible dynamic mechanisms, including large-amplitude planetary-scale wave dynamics, including Rossby wave breaking, multiple equilibria circulation regimes, large-scale forcing of anticyclones by synoptic-scale eddies, finite-amplitude non-linear instability theory, and influence of sea surface temperature anomalies, to name but a few. However, to date no unique theoretical model of atmospheric blocking has been formulated that can account for all of its observational characteristics.
When numerical, global short- and medium-range weather predictions started being produced operationally, and with the establishment, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, it quickly became of relevance to assess the capability of numerical models to predict blocking with the correct space-time characteristics (e.g., location, time of onset, life span, and decay). Early studies showed that models had difficulties in correctly representing blocking as well as in connection with their large systematic (mean) errors.
Despite enormous improvements in the ability of numerical models to represent atmospheric dynamics, blocking remains a challenge for global weather prediction and climate simulation models. Such modeling deficiencies have negative consequences not only for our ability to represent the observed climate but also for the possibility of producing high-quality seasonal-to-decadal predictions. For such predictions, representing the correct space-time statistics of blocking occurrence is, especially for certain geographical areas, extremely important.
Fred Kucharski and Muhammad Adnan Abid
The interannual variability of Indian summer monsoon is probably one of the most intensively studied phenomena in the research area of climate variability. This is because even relatively small variations of about 10% to 20% from the mean rainfall may have dramatic consequences for regional agricultural production. Forecasting such variations months in advance could help agricultural planning substantially. Unfortunately, a perfect forecast of Indian monsoon variations, like any other regional climate variations, is impossible in a long-term prediction (that is, more than 2 weeks or so in advance). The reason is that part of the atmospheric variations influencing the monsoon have an inherent predictability limit of about 2 weeks. Therefore, such predictions will always be probabilistic, and only likelihoods of droughts, excessive rains, or normal conditions may be provided. However, even such probabilistic information may still be useful for agricultural planning. In research regarding interannual Indian monsoon rainfall variations, the main focus is therefore to identify the remaining predictable component and to estimate what fraction of the total variation this component accounts for. It turns out that slowly varying (with respect to atmospheric intrinsic variability) sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) provide the dominant part of the predictable component of Indian monsoon variability. Of the predictable part arising from SSTs, it is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that provides the main part. This is not to say that other forcings may be neglected. Other forcings that have been identified are, for example, SST patterns in the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and parts of the Pacific Ocean different from the traditional ENSO region, and springtime snow depth in the Himalayas, as well as aerosols. These other forcings may interact constructively or destructively with the ENSO impact and thus enhance or reduce the ENSO-induced predictable signal. This may result in decade-long changes in the connection between ENSO and the Indian monsoon. The physical mechanism for the connection between ENSO and the Indian monsoon may be understood as large-scale adjustment of atmospheric heatings and circulations to the ENSO-induced SST variations. These adjustments modify the Walker circulation and connect the rising/sinking motion in the central-eastern Pacific during a warm/cold ENSO event with sinking/rising motion in the Indian region, leading to reduced/increased rainfall.
Judith L. Lean
Emergent in recent decades are robust specifications and understanding of connections between the Sun’s changing radiative energy and Earth’s changing climate and atmosphere. This follows more than a century of contentious debate about the reality of such connections, fueled by ambiguous observations, dubious correlations, and lack of plausible mechanisms. It derives from a new generation of observations of the Sun and the Earth made from space, and a new generation of physical climate models that integrate the Earth’s surface and ocean with the extended overlying atmosphere. Space-based observations now cover more than three decades and enable statistical attribution of climate change related to the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle on global scales, simultaneously with other natural and anthropogenic influences. Physical models that fully resolve the stratosphere and its embedded ozone layer better replicate the complex and subtle processes that couple the Sun and Earth.
An increase of ~0.1% in the Sun’s total irradiance, as observed near peak activity during recent 11-year solar cycles, is associated with an increase of ~0.1oC in Earth’s global surface temperature, with additional complex, time-dependent regional responses. The overlying atmosphere warms more, by 0.3oC near 20 km. Because solar radiation impinges primarily at low latitudes, the increased radiant energy alters equator-to-pole thermal gradients, initiating dynamical responses that produce regions of both warming and cooling at mid to high latitudes. Because solar energy deposition depends on altitude as a result of height-dependent atmospheric absorption, changing solar radiation establishes vertical thermal gradients that further alter dynamical motions within the Earth system.
It remains uncertain whether there are long-term changes in solar irradiance on multidecadal time scales other than due to the varying amplitude of the 11-year cycle. If so the magnitude of the additional change is expected to be comparable to that observed during the solar activity cycle. Were the Sun’s activity to become anomalously low, declining during the next century to levels of the Maunder Minimum (from 1645 to 1715), the expected global surface temperature cooling is less than a few tenths oC. In contrast, a scenario of moderate greenhouse gas increase with climate forcing of 2.6 W m−2 over the next century is expected to warm the globe 1.5 to 1.9oC, an order of magnitude more than the hypothesized solar-induced cooling over the same period.
Future challenges include the following: securing sufficiently robust observations of the Sun and Earth to elucidate changes on climatological time scales; advancing physical climate models to simulate realistic responses to changing solar radiation on decadal time scales, synergistically at the Earth’s surface and in the ocean and atmosphere; disentangling the Sun’s influence from that of other natural and anthropogenic influences as the climate and atmosphere evolve; projecting past and future changes in the Sun and Earth’s climate and atmosphere; and communicating new understanding across scientific disciplines, and to political and societal stakeholders.
Oceanic mixing is one of the major determinants of the ocean circulation and its climatological influences. Existing distributions of mixing properties determine the rates of storage and redistribution within the climate system of fundamental scalar tracers including heat, fresh water, oxygen, carbon, and others. Observations have overturned earlier concepts that mixing rates might be approximately uniform throughout the ocean volume, with profound implications for determining the circulation and its properties. Inferences about past and potential future oceanic circulations and the resulting climate influence require determination of changed energy inputs and the expected consequent adjustment of mixing processes and their influence.
B.N. Goswami and Soumi Chakravorty
Lifeline for about one-sixth of the world’s population in the subcontinent, the Indian summer monsoon (ISM) is an integral part of the annual cycle of the winds (reversal of winds with seasons), coupled with a strong annual cycle of precipitation (wet summer and dry winter). For over a century, high socioeconomic impacts of ISM rainfall (ISMR) in the region have driven scientists to attempt to predict the year-to-year variations of ISM rainfall. A remarkably stable phenomenon, making its appearance every year without fail, the ISM climate exhibits a rather small year-to-year variation (the standard deviation of the seasonal mean being 10% of the long-term mean), but it has proven to be an extremely challenging system to predict. Even the most skillful, sophisticated models are barely useful with skill significantly below the potential limit on predictability. Understanding what drives the mean ISM climate and its variability on different timescales is, therefore, critical to advancing skills in predicting the monsoon. A conceptual ISM model helps explain what maintains not only the mean ISM but also its variability on interannual and longer timescales.
The annual ISM precipitation cycle can be described as a manifestation of the seasonal migration of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) or the zonally oriented cloud (rain) band characterized by a sudden “onset.” The other important feature of ISM is the deep overturning meridional (regional Hadley circulation) that is associated with it, driven primarily by the latent heat release associated with the ISM (ITCZ) precipitation. The dynamics of the monsoon climate, therefore, is an extension of the dynamics of the ITCZ. The classical land–sea surface temperature gradient model of ISM may explain the seasonal reversal of the surface winds, but it fails to explain the onset and the deep vertical structure of the ISM circulation. While the surface temperature over land cools after the onset, reversing the north–south surface temperature gradient and making it inadequate to sustain the monsoon after onset, it is the tropospheric temperature gradient that becomes positive at the time of onset and remains strongly positive thereafter, maintaining the monsoon. The change in sign of the tropospheric temperature (TT) gradient is dynamically responsible for a symmetric instability, leading to the onset and subsequent northward progression of the ITCZ. The unified ISM model in terms of the TT gradient provides a platform to understand the drivers of ISM variability by identifying processes that affect TT in the north and the south and influence the gradient.
The predictability of the seasonal mean ISM is limited by interactions of the annual cycle and higher frequency monsoon variability within the season. The monsoon intraseasonal oscillation (MISO) has a seminal role in influencing the seasonal mean and its interannual variability. While ISM climate on long timescales (e.g., multimillennium) largely follows the solar forcing, on shorter timescales the ISM variability is governed by the internal dynamics arising from ocean–atmosphere–land interactions, regional as well as remote, together with teleconnections with other climate modes. Also important is the role of anthropogenic forcing, such as the greenhouse gases and aerosols versus the natural multidecadal variability in the context of the recent six-decade long decreasing trend of ISM rainfall.
Regional models were originally developed to serve weather forecasting and regional process studies. Typical simulations encompass time periods in the order of days or weeks. Thereafter regional models were also used more and more as regional climate models for longer integrations and climate change downscaling. Regional climate modeling or regional dynamic downscaling, which are used interchangeably, developed as its own branch in climate research since the end of the 1990s out of the need to bridge the obvious inconsistencies at the interface of global climate research and climate impact research. The primary aim of regional downscaling is to provide consistent regional climate change scenarios with relevant spatial resolution to serve detailed climate impact assessments.
Similar to global climate modeling, the early attempts at regional climate modeling were based on uncoupled atmospheric models or stand-alone ocean models, an approach that is still maintained as the most common on the regional scale. However, this approach has some fundamental limitations, since regional air-sea interaction remains unresolved and regional feedbacks are neglected. This is crucial when assessing climate change impacts in the coastal zone or the regional marine environment. To overcome these limitations, regional climate modeling is currently in a transition from uncoupled regional models into coupled atmosphere-ocean models, leading to fully integrated earth system models. Coupled ice-ocean-atmosphere models have been developed during the last decade and are currently robust and well established on the regional scale. Their added value has been demonstrated for regional climate modeling in marine regions, and the importance of regional air-sea interaction became obvious. Coupled atmosphere-ice-ocean models, but also coupled physical-biogeochemical modeling approaches are increasingly used for the marine realm. First attempts to couple these two approaches together with land surface models are underway. Physical coupled atmosphere-ocean modeling is also developing further and first model configurations resolving wave effects at the atmosphere-ocean interface are now available. These new developments now open up for improved regional assessment under broad consideration of local feedbacks and interactions between the regional atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.
The Sahel of Africa has been identified as having the strongest land–atmosphere (L/A) interactions on Earth. The Sahelian L/A interaction studies started in the late 1970s. However, due to controversies surrounding the early studies, in which only a single land parameter was considered in L/A interactions, the credibility of land-surface effects on the Sahel’s climate has long been challenged. Using general circulation models and regional climate models coupled with biogeophysical and dynamic vegetation models as well as applying analyses of satellite-derived data, field measurements, and assimilation data, the effects of land-surface processes on West African monsoon variability, which dominates the Sahel climate system at intraseasonal, seasonal, interannual, and decadal scales, as well as mesoscale, have been extensively investigated to realistically explore the Sahel L/A interaction: its effects and the mechanisms involved.
The Sahel suffered the longest and most severe drought on the planet in the 20th century. The devastating environmental and socioeconomic consequences resulting from drought-induced famines in the Sahel have provided strong motivation for the scientific community and society to understand the causes of the drought and its impact. It was controversial and under debate whether the drought was a natural process, mainly induced by sea-surface temperature variability, or was affected by anthropogenic activities. Diagnostic and modeling studies of the sea-surface temperature have consistently demonstrated it exerts great influence on the Sahel climate system, but sea-surface temperature is unable to explain the full scope of the Sahel climate variability and the later 20th century’s drought. The effect of land-surface processes, especially land-cover and land-use change, on the drought have also been extensively investigated. The results with more realistic land-surface models suggest land processes are a first-order contributor to the Sahel climate and to its drought during the later 1960s to the 1980s, comparable to sea surface temperature effects. The issues that caused controversies in the early studies have been properly addressed in the studies with state-of-the-art models and available data.
The mechanisms through which land processes affect the atmosphere are also elucidated in a number of studies. Land-surface processes not only affect vertical transfer of radiative fluxes and heat fluxes but also affect horizontal advections through their effect on the atmospheric heating rate and moisture flux convergence/divergence as well as horizontal temperature gradients.
Edward Hanna and Thomas E. Cropper
Many variations in the weather in the European and North Atlantic regions are linked with changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). The NAO is measured using a south-minus-north index of atmospheric surface pressure variation across the North Atlantic and is closely connected with changes in the North Atlantic atmospheric polar jet stream and wider changes in atmospheric circulation. The physical, human, and biological impacts of NAO changes extend well beyond weather and climate, with major economic, social, and environmental effects. The NAO index based on barometric pressure records now extends as far back as 1850, based on recent work. Although there are few significant overall trends in monthly or seasonal NAO (i.e., for the whole record), there are many shorter-term multidecadal variations. A prominent increase in the NAO between the 1960s and 1990s was widely noted in previous work and was thought to be related to human-induced greenhouse gas forcing. However, since then this trend has reversed, with a significant decrease in the summer NAO since the 1990s and a striking increase in variability of the winter—especially December—NAO that has resulted in four of the six highest and two of the five lowest NAO Decembers occurring during 2004–2015 in the 116-year record, with accompanying more variable year-to-year winter weather conditions over the United Kingdom. These NAO changes are related to an increasing trend in the Greenland Blocking Index (GBI; equals high pressure over Greenland) in summer and a significantly more variable GBI in December. Such NAO and related jet stream and blocking changes are not generally present in the current generation of global climate models, although recent process studies offer insights into their possible causes. Several plausible climate forcings and feedbacks, including changes in the sun’s energy output and the Arctic amplification of global warming with accompanying reductions in sea ice, may help explain the recent NAO changes. Recent research also suggests significant skill in being able to make seasonal NAO predictions and therefore long-range weather forecasts for up to several months ahead for northwest Europe. However, global climate models remain unclear on longer-term NAO predictions for the remainder of the 21st century.
Precipitation levels in southern Africa exhibit a marked east–west gradient and are characterized by strong seasonality and high interannual variability. Much of the mainland south of 15°S exhibits a semiarid to dry subhumid climate. More than 66 percent of rainfall in the extreme southwest of the subcontinent occurs between April and September. Rainfall in this region—termed the winter rainfall zone (WRZ)—is most commonly associated with the passage of midlatitude frontal systems embedded in the austral westerlies. In contrast, more than 66 percent of mean annual precipitation over much of the remainder of the subcontinent falls between October and March. Climates in this summer rainfall zone (SRZ) are dictated by the seasonal interplay between subtropical high-pressure systems and the migration of easterly flows associated with the Intertropical Convergence Zone. Fluctuations in both SRZ and WRZ rainfall are linked to the variability of sea-surface temperatures in the oceans surrounding southern Africa and are modulated by the interplay of large-scale modes of climate variability, including the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Southern Indian Ocean Dipole, and Southern Annular Mode.
Ideas about long-term rainfall variability in southern Africa have shifted over time. During the early to mid-19th century, the prevailing narrative was that the climate was progressively desiccating. By the late 19th to early 20th century, when gauged precipitation data became more readily available, debate shifted toward the identification of cyclical rainfall variation. The integration of gauge data, evidence from historical documents, and information from natural proxies such as tree rings during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, has allowed the nature of precipitation variability since ~1800 to be more fully explored.
Drought episodes affecting large areas of the SRZ occurred during the first decade of the 19th century, in the early and late 1820s, late 1850s–mid-1860s, mid-late 1870s, earlymid-1880s, and mid-late 1890s. Of these episodes, the drought during the early 1860s was the most severe of the 19th century, with those of the 1820s and 1890s the most protracted. Many of these droughts correspond with more extreme ENSO warm phases.
Widespread wetter conditions are less easily identified. The year 1816 appears to have been relatively wet across the Kalahari and other areas of south central Africa. Other wetter episodes were centered on the late 1830s–early 1840s, 1855, 1870, and 1890. In the WRZ, drier conditions occurred during the first decade of the 19th century, for much of the mid-late 1830s through to the mid-1840s, during the late 1850s and early 1860s, and in the early-mid-1880s and mid-late 1890s. As for the SRZ, markedly wetter years are less easily identified, although the periods around 1815, the early 1830s, mid-1840s, mid-late 1870s, and early 1890s saw enhanced rainfall. Reconstructed rainfall anomalies for the SRZ suggest that, on average, the region was significantly wetter during the 19th century than the 20th and that there appears to have been a drying trend during the 20th century that has continued into the early 21st. In the WRZ, average annual rainfall levels appear to have been relatively consistent between the 19th and 20th centuries, although rainfall variability increased during the 20th century compared to the 19th.