The role of the timing of sudden stratospheric warmings for precipitation and temperature anomalies in Europe

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Erika Monnin, Marlene Kretschmer, Inna Polichtchouk 


The Northern Hemisphere stratospheric polar vortex (SPV), a band of fast westerly winds over the Pole extending from approximately 10 to 50 km altitude, is a key driver of European winter weather. Extremely weak polar vortex states, so called sudden stratospheric warmings (SSWs), are on average followed by dry and cold weather in Northern Europe, as well as wetter weather in Southern Europe. However, the surface response of SSWs varies greatly between events, and it is not well understood which factors modulate this difference. Here, we address the role of the timing of SSWs within the cold season (December–March) for the temperature and precipitation response in Europe. Given the limited sample size of SSWs in the observations, hindcasts of the seasonal forecasting model SEAS5 from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts are analysed. First, we evaluate key characteristics of stratosphere–troposphere coupling in SEAS5 against reanalysis data and find them to be reasonably well captured by the model, justifying our approach. We then show that in SEAS5, early winter (December and January) SSWs are followed by more pronounced surface impacts compared to late winter (February and March) SSWs. For example, in Scotland, the low precipitation anomalies are roughly twice as severe after early winter SSWs than after late winter SSWs. The difference in the response cannot be explained by more downward propagating SSWs in early winter, or by different monthly precipitation climatologies. Instead, we demonstrate that the differences result from stronger SPV anomalies associated with early winter SSWs. This is a statistical artefact introduced through the commonly used SSW event definition, which involves an absolute threshold, and, therefore, leads to stronger SPV anomalies during early winter SSWs when the stratospheric mean state is stronger. Our study highlights the sensitivity of surface impacts to SSW event definition.



Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Sudden Stratospheric Warmings, weather and climate extremes, European weather and climate, Stratosphere-troposphere interactions


Published: 2021-03-26 14:17

Last Updated: 2022-02-04 01:17

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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