Firestorms and flaming tornadoes: how bushfires create their own ferocious weather systems



A firestorm on Mirror Plateaun Yellowstone Park, 1988.
Jim Peaco/US National Park Service

Rachel Badlan, UNSW

As the east coast bushfire crisis unfolds, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Rural Fire Service operational officer Brett Taylor have each warned residents bushfires can create their own weather systems.

This is not just a figure of speech or a general warning about the unpredictability of intense fires. Bushfires genuinely can create their own weather systems: a phenomenon known variously as firestorms, pyroclouds or, in meteorology-speak, pyrocumulonimbus.




Read more:
Firestorms: the bushfire/thunderstorm hybrids we urgently need to understand


The occurrence of firestorms is increasing in Australia; there have been more than 50 in the period 2001-18. During a six-week period earlier this year, 18 confirmed pyrocumulonimbus formed, mainly over the Victorian High Country.

A pyrocumulonimbus cloud generated by a bushfire in Licola,Victoria, on March 2, 2019.
Elliot Leventhal, Author provided

Its not clear whether the current bushfires will spawn any firestorms. But with the frequency of extreme fires set to increase due to hotter and drier conditions, it’s worth taking a closer look at how firestorms happen, and what effects they produce.

What is a firestorm?

The term “firestorm” is a contraction of “fire thunderstorm”. In simple terms, they are thunderstorms generated by the heat from a bushfire.

In stark contrast to typical bushfires, which are relatively easy to predict and are driven by the prevailing wind, firestorms tend to form above unusually large and intense fires.

If a fire encompasses a large enough area (called “deep flaming”), the upward movement of hot air can cause the fire to interact with the atmosphere above it, potentially forming a pyrocloud. This consists of smoke and ash in the smoke plume, and water vapour in the cloud above.

If the conditions are not too severe, the fire may produce a cloud called a pyrocumulus, which is simply a cloud that forms over the fire. These are typically benign and do not affect conditions on the ground.

But if the fire is particularly large or intense, or if the atmosphere above it is unstable, this process can give birth to a pyrocumulonimbus – and that is an entirely more malevolent beast.

What effects do firestorms produce?

A pyrocumulonibus cloud is much like a normal thunderstorm that forms on a hot summer’s day. The crucial difference here is that this upward movement is caused by the heat from the fire, rather than simply heat radiating from the ground.

Conventional thunderclouds and pyrocumulonimbus share similar characteristics. Both form an anvil-shaped cloud that extends high into the troposphere (the lower 10-15km of the atmosphere) and may even reach into the stratosphere beyond.

NASA image of pyrocumulonimbus formation in Argentina, January 2018.
NASA

The weather underneath these clouds can be fierce. As the cloud forms, the circulating air creates strong winds with dangerous, erratic “downbursts” – vertical blasts of air that hit the ground and scatter in all directions.

In the case of a pyrocumulonimbus, these downbursts have the added effect of bringing dry air down to the surface beneath the fire. The swirling winds can also carry embers over huge distances. Ember attack has been identified as the main cause of property loss in bushfires, and the unpredictable downbursts make it impossible to determine which direction the wind will blow across the ground. The wind direction may suddenly change, catching people off guard.

Firestorms also produce dry lightning, potentially sparking new fires, which may then merge or coalesce into a larger flaming zone.

In rare cases, a firestorm can even morph into a “fire tornado”. This is formed from the rotating winds in the convective column of a pyrocumulonimbus. They are attached to the firestorm and can therefore lift off the ground.




Read more:
Turn and burn: the strange world of fire tornadoes


This happened during the infamous January 2003 Canberra bushfires, when a pyrotornado tore a path near Mount Arawang in the suburb of Kambah.

A fire tornado in Kambah, Canberra, 2003 (contains strong language).

Understandably, firestorms are the most dangerous and unpredictable manifestations of a bushfire, and are impossible to suppress or control. As such, it is vital to evacuate these areas early, to avoid sending fire personnel into extremely dangerous areas.

The challenge is to identify the triggers that cause fires to develop into firestorms. Our research at UNSW, in collaboration with fire agencies, has made considerable progress in identifying these factors. They include “eruptive fire behaviour”, where instead of a steady rate of fire spread, once a fire interacts with a slope, the plume may attach to the ground and rapidly accelerate up the hill.

Another process, called “vorticity-driven lateral spread”, has also been recognised as a good indicator of potential fire blow-up. This occurs when a fire spreads laterally along a ridge line instead of following the direction of the wind.

Although further refinement is still needed, this kind of knowledge could greatly improve decision-making processes on when and where to deploy on-ground fire crews, and when to evacuate before the situation turns deadly.The Conversation

Rachel Badlan, Postdoctoral Researcher, Atmospheric Dynamics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The science of drought is complex but the message on climate change is clear



Detecting human fingerprints on complex events like droughts is not straightforward.
AAP Image/Dan Peled

Ben Henley, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Australian National University; Murray Peel, University of Melbourne; Q J Wang, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, University of Melbourne

The issue of whether Australia’s current drought is caused by climate change has been seized on by some media commentators, with debate raging over a remark from eminent scientist Andy Pitman that “there is no link between climate change and drought”. Professor Pitman has since qualified, he meant to say “there is no direct link between climate change and drought”.

A highly politicised debate that tries to corner scientists will not do much to help rural communities struggling with the ongoing dry. But it is still worthwhile understanding the complexity of how climate change relates to drought.




Read more:
Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


So, why the contention?

It may seem like splitting hairs to focus on single words, but the reality is drought is complex, and broad definitive statements are difficult to make. Nevertheless, aspects of drought are linked with climate change. Let us try to give you a taste of the complexity.

First, it’s important to understand that drought is a manifestation of interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology uses rainfall deficiencies to identify regions that are under drought conditions. Anyone on the land doesn’t need to be reminded, but the current drought is seriously bad. These maps show the patterns of rainfall deficiency over the past 36 and 18 months, highlighting the severity and extent of what we call meteorological drought.

Widespread rainfall deficiencies over the last 36 months (left) and 18 months (right)
Australian Bureau of Meteorology

But along with the main driver – low rainfall – droughts can also be exacerbated by water loss through evaporation. This depends not only on temperature but also humidity, wind speeds, and sunshine. Temperature will clearly continue to rise steadily almost everywhere. For the other factors, the future is not quite as clear.

Water loss also varies according to vegetation cover. Plants respond to higher carbon dioxide levels and drought by closing the tiny holes in their leaves (the stomata) and this can actually reduce water loss in wet environments. However, in water-stressed environments, projected long-term declines in rain may be compounded by plants using more water, further reducing streamflow. Actually, we can glean a lot from studying hydrological drought, which is measured by a period of low flow in rivers.

The point here is droughts are multidimensional, and can affect water supply on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. A seasonal-scale drought that reduces soil moisture on a farm, and a decade-long drought that depletes reservoirs and groundwater supplies, can each be devastating, but in different ways.

Is climate change affecting Australian droughts?

Climate change may affect drought metrics and types of drought differently, so it can be hard to make general statements about the links between human-induced climate change and all types of drought, in all locations, on all timescales.

Southern Australia, and in particular the southwest, has seen a rapid decline in winter rainfall and runoff that has been linked to climate change. In the southeast there has also been a substantial decline in winter rainfall and total runoff in recent decades. Although the reductions are consistent with climate change projections, the trend so far is harder to distinguish from the year-to-year variability.

There is some evidence to suggest that widespread and prolonged droughts, like the Millennium Drought, are worse than other droughts in past centuries, and may have been exacerbated by climate change.




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


But the role of climate change in extended drought periods is difficult to discern from normal variations in weather and climate. This is particularly true in Australia, which has a much more variable climate than many other parts of the world.

What does the future hold?

Climate models project increasing temperature across Australia and a continuing decline in cool-season rainfall over southern Australia over the next century. This will lead to more pressure on water supplies for agriculture, the environment, and cities such as Melbourne at the Paris Agreement’s target of 2℃, relative to the more ambitious target of 1.5℃ of global warming.




Read more:
2℃ of global warming would put pressure on Melbourne’s water supply


Rainfall is projected to become more extreme, with more intense rain events and fewer light rain days. Declining overall rainfall is predicted to reduce river flows in southeastern Australia. While we can expect the largest floods to increase with climate change, smaller floods are decreasing due to drier soils, and it is these smaller floods that top up our water supply systems.

Action needed

We might not know enough about droughts to be certain about exactly how they will behave in the future, but this does not affect the message from the science community on climate change, which remains crystal clear.

Rainfall intensification, sea level rise, ocean acidification, hotter days, and longer and more intense heatwaves all point to the fact that climate change presents a major threat to Australia and the world.

In response to these threats, we need deep and sustained greenhouse gas emissions cuts and proactive adaptation to the inevitable effects of climate change. This includes a focus right now on the practical measures to help our rural communities who continue to feel the pinch of a dry landscape.




Read more:
Why 2℃ of global warming is much worse for Australia than 1.5℃


The Conversation


Ben Henley, Research Fellow in Climate and Water Resources, University of Melbourne; Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, University of Melbourne; Anna Ukkola, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Murray Peel, Senior lecturer, University of Melbourne; Q J Wang, Professor, University of Melbourne, and Rory Nathan, Associate Professor Hydrology and Water Resources, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We can’t drought-proof Australia, and trying is a fool’s errand



The push to ‘drought-proof’ Australia is dangerous nonsense.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Emma Kathryn White, University of Melbourne

There is a phrase in the novel East of Eden that springs to mind every time politicians speak of “drought-proofing” Australia:

And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.

While author John Steinbeck was referring to California’s Salinas Valley, the phrase is particularly pertinent to Australia where the El Niño-Southern Oscillation exerts a profound influence. Water availability varies greatly across the country, both in space and time. El Niño conditions bring droughts and devastating bushfires, while La Niña is accompanied by violent rainfall, floods and cyclones.




Read more:
Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


This variability is innate to the Australian environment. And now, climate change means that in some regions, the dry years are becoming drier and the wet years are becoming less frequent. Managing water resources under a changing climate and burgeoning population requires innovative and realistic solutions that are different to those that have worked in the past.

Drought-proofing is impossible

Planning for the dry years involves setting sustainable usage limits, using more than one source of water, efficiency improvements, managed aquifer recharge, water recycling and evaluation of the best usage of water resources. It does not involve misleading claims of drought-proofing that infer we can somehow tame the unruly nature of our arid environment instead of planning and preparing for reality.

Unlike managing for the wet and dry periods, drought-proofing seeks to negate dry periods through infrastructure schemes such as large dams (subject to huge evaporative losses) and dubious river diversions. It fails to acknowledge the intrinsic variability of water availability in Australia, and modify our behaviour accordingly.

The reality is that in many parts of the country, groundwater is the sole source of water and the climate is very dry. A cornerstone of the recently launched $100 million National Water Grid Authority is the construction of more dams. But dams need rain to fill them, because without rain, all we have is empty dams. And we have enough of those already.

A history of denial

Just because Dorothea Mackellar wrote of “droughts and flooding rains” over 100 years ago, it doesn’t mean water management should proceed in the same vein it always has.

Australia has always had a variable climate, which changes significantly from year to year and also decade to decade. This not the same as a long-term climatic trend, better known as climate change.




Read more:
“Weather” and “climate” are used interchangeably. They shouldn’t be


Climate change is making parts of Australia even drier. Rainfall in the south-eastern part of Australia is projected to keep declining. We cannot rely on blind faith that rains will fill dams once more because they have in the past.

Yet inevitably, during the dry years, claims that Australia can be “drought-proofed” are renewed. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack recently praised the Bradfield scheme, an 80 year old infrastructure project intending to divert northern river flows inland. It has been so thoroughly debunked on all scales, it is better described as a pipe-dream than piping scheme. It has no place in reasonable water management discourse.

The concept of drought-proofing harks back to the days of European settlement. Early water management techniques were more appropriate for verdant English fields than the arid plains of Australia.

In the early twentieth century, water resources were vigorously developed, with government-sponsored irrigation schemes and large dams constructed. During this time, little thought was given to sustainability. Instead, the goal was to stimulate inland settlement, agriculture and industry. Development was pursued despite the cost and ill-advised nature of irrigation in particular areas.

Shifting long entrenched perceptions of water management

All this said, irrigation certainly has its place: it supports a quarter of Australia’s agricultural output. And there are substantial efforts underway to rebalance water usage between irrigation and the environment.

However, acknowledgement of the relative scarcity of water in certain parts of Australia has only really occurred in the last 30 years or so.

Widespread droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s highlighted the importance of effective water management and shifted long-entrenched perceptions of irrigation and development. Water reforms were passed, mandating future water development be environmentally sustainable development, which meant, for the first time, water resource management sought a balance between economic, social and environmental needs.

Antiquated ideas about drought-proofing, pushed by politicians, promise much yet deliver little. They distract attention and siphon funds from realistic solutions, or actually re-evaluating where and how we use our limited water resources.




Read more:
The air above Antarctica is suddenly getting warmer – here’s what it means for Australia


We need practical, effective and well-considered management such as water recycling, efficiency measures and source-divestment that accounts for both shorter term climatic variability and long term changes in temperature and rainfall due to climate change. A big part of this is managing expectations through education.

Attempting to drought-proof Australia is not “managing for the dry periods”, as advocates claim. It is sticking our heads in the dry, salty sand and pretending the land is cool and green and wet.The Conversation

Emma Kathryn White, PhD Candidate, Infrastructure Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia could see fewer cyclones, but more heat and fire risk in coming months


Jonathan Pollock, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Paul Gregory, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Northern Australia is likely to see fewer cyclones than usual this season, but hot, dry weather will increase the risk of fire and heatwaves across eastern and southern Australia.

The Bureau of Meteorology today released its forecast for the tropical cyclone season, which officially runs from November 1 to April 30.




Read more:
It’s only October, so what’s with all these bushfires? New research explains it


Also published today is the October to April Severe Weather Outlook, which examines the risk of other weather extremes like flooding, heatwaves and bushfires.

Warmer oceans means more cyclones

On average, 11 tropical cyclones form each season in the Australian region. Around four of those cross the coast. The total number each season is roughly related to how much cooler or warmer than average the tropical oceans near Australia are during the cyclone season.

Map showing the average number of tropical cyclones through the Australian region and surrounding waters in ENSO-neutral years, using all years of data from the 1969-70 to 2017-18 tropical cyclone season.

One of the biggest drivers of change in ocean temperatures is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. During La Niña phases of ENSO, the warmest waters in the equatorial Pacific build up in the western Pacific and to the north of Australia. That region then becomes the focus for more cloud, rainfall and tropical cyclones.

But during El Niño, the warmest water shifts towards the central Pacific and away from northern Australia. This decreases the likelihood of cyclones in our region.




Read more:
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


And when ENSO is neutral, there is little push towards above or below average numbers of cyclones.

Temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean have been ENSO-neutral since April and are likely to stay neutral until at least February 2020. However, some tropical patterns are El Niño-like, including higher-than-average air pressure at Darwin. This may be related to the current record-strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole – another of Australia’s major climate drivers – and the cooler waters surrounding northern Australia.

The neutral ENSO phase alongside higher-than-average air pressure over northern Australia means we expect fewer-than-average tropical cyclones in the Australian region this season. The bureau’s Tropical Cyclone Season Outlook model predicts a 65% chance of fewer-than-average cyclones.

At least one tropical cyclone has crossed the Australian coast every season since reliable records began in the 1970s, so people across northern Australia need to be prepared every year. In ENSO-neutral cyclone seasons, this first cyclone crossing typically occurs in late December.




Read more:
El Niño has rapidly become stronger and stranger, according to coral records


Other severe weather

While cyclones are one of the key concerns during the coming months, the summer months also bring the threat of several other forms of severe weather, including bushfires, heatwaves and flooding rain.

With dry soils inland, and hence little moisture available to cool the air, and a forecast for clear skies and warmer days, there is an increased chance that heat will build up over central Australia during the spring and summer months. This increases the chance of heatwaves across eastern and southern Australia when that hot air is drawn towards the coast by passing weather systems.

Australian seasonal bushfire outlook, as of August 2019. Vast areas of Australia, particularly the east coast, have an above-normal fire potential this season.
Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC/Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council

Likewise, the dry landscape and the chance of extreme heat also raise the risk of more bushfires throughout similar parts of Australia, especially on windy days. And with fewer natural firebreaks such as full rivers and streams, even greater care is needed in some areas.

Widespread floods are less likely this season. This is because of forecast below-average rainfall and also because dry soils mean the first rains will soak into the ground rather than run across the landscape.

However, as we saw in northern Queensland in January and February this year, when up to 2 metres of rainfall fell in less than 10 days, localised flooding can occur in any wet season if a tropical low parks itself in one location for any length of time.




Read more:
Catastrophic Queensland floods killed 600,000 cattle and devastated native species


Most of all, it’s always important to follow advice from emergency services on what to do before, during and after severe weather. Know your weather, know your risk and be prepared. You can stay up to date with the latest forecast and warnings on the bureau’s website and subscribe to receive climate information emails.The Conversation

Jonathan Pollock, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Head of Long-range Forecasts, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Paul Gregory, BOM, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Winter storms are speeding up the loss of Arctic sea ice



A scientist checks cracks in the Arctic sea ice after a storm (April 2015, N-ICE2015 expedition).
Amelie Meyer/NPI, Author provided

Amelie Meyer, University of Tasmania

Arctic sea ice is already disappearing rapidly but our research shows winter storms are now further accelerating sea ice loss.




Read more:
Arctic breakdown: what climate change in the far north means for the rest of us


The research is based on data we gathered during an expedition on a small Norwegian research vessel, the Lance, that was left to drift in the Arctic sea ice for five months in 2015.

Time series of air temperature anomalies in the Arctic for the period 1981-2010: Temperatures in the Arctic in May and June 2019 period were the warmest in the satellite records.
Zack Labe (@ZLabe)

The expedition was intense and felt more like going to the Moon than going on a typical research cruise. What took us by surprise were the many winter storms that battered the ice (and our ship and ice camp).

It has taken us years to collate these data but now we know the winter storms play a key role in the fate of Arctic sea ice, particularly in the Atlantic sector of the Arctic.

Norwegian research vessel ‘Lance’ frozen in the Arctic sea ice in February 2015 during the N-ICE2015 expedition.
Paul Dodd (NPI)

How winter storms amplify climate change

On average, about 10 extreme storms will reach all the way to the North Pole each winter. While these winter storms are short (they last on average 6-48 hours), they can be incredibly intense.

During a storm in winter 2015 we saw the air temperature rise from -40℃ (-40℉) to 0℃ (32℉) in just a day, and then fall back to -30℃ (-22℉) the next day, when cold Arctic air returned after the storm.

These storms bring heat, moisture and strong winds into the Arctic, and next we look at how they impact sea ice and its surroundings.

Warming and weakening the ice

The heat from the storms warms up the air, snow and ice, slowing down the growth of the ice. Moisture from the storms falls as snow on the ice. After the storm, the blanket of snow insulates the ice from the cold air, further slowing the growth of the ice for the remainder of winter.

The strong winds during the storms push the ice around and break it into pieces, making it more fragile and deforming it, more like a boulder field.

The strong winds also stir the ocean below the ice, mixing up warmer water from deeper waters to the surface where it melts the ice from below. This melting of the ice in the middle of winter can happen for several days after the storms when the air is already back to well below freezing.

Processes related to Arctic winter storms. In the first storm phase, strong southerly winds compress the ice cover and transport warm air, moisture, and bring strong winds. In the second phase, northerly winds transport ice southwards. After the storm has passed, cold and calm conditions return, allowing new ice to grow in leads. When the next winter storm arrives, it further drives the ice cover into a relatively thin-ice, snow-covered mosaic of strongly deformed ice floes. These new conditions impact surrounding ecosystems by shaping habitats and light conditions.
Graham et al., 2019 (Scientific Reports)

Thinner ice, shelter for life and accelerated melting

The breakup of the ice opens big passages of open water between ice floes, called leads. In winter these passages end up refreezing rapidly, generating new super-thin ice.

These thinner refrozen patches of ice let more light through in the following spring, allowing ocean plants (phytoplankton) to bloom earlier.

The rougher sea ice landscape becomes a shelter for many ice-associated Arctic organisms, including ice algae, becoming biological hot spots in the following spring.

The broken up and deformed ice drifts faster, reaching warmer waters where it melts sooner and faster.

So really, winter storms precondition the ice to a faster melt in the following spring with an impact that continues well into the following season.

Why is Arctic sea ice declining?

Winter sea ice cover in the Atlantic sector of the Arctic has been retreating at a record breaking pace, especially in the Barents Sea off Norway and Russia.

Average September Arctic sea ice extent from 1979 to 2018. Black line shows monthly average for each year; blue line shows the trend.
National Snow and Ice Data Center

The Arctic is particularly sensitive to human driven climate change. We know the decrease in sea ice is due to both the warming of the Arctic (air and ocean) and changing wind patterns that break up the ice cover.

But there are also amplifying mechanisms or “feedback” mechanisms, in which one natural process reinforces another. Their role in the decrease of sea ice is hard to predict. We now know winter storms in the Arctic contribute to these feedback mechanisms.

More storms ahead

Arctic winter storms are increasing in frequency and this is likely due to climate change.

With the thinner Arctic sea ice cover and shallower warmer water in the Arctic Ocean, the mechanisms we observed during the winter storms will likely strengthen and the overall impact of winter storms on Arctic ice is likely to increase in the future.

Two weeks ago, the Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for 2019, after another winter of intense winter storms. The minimum ice extent was effectively tied for second lowest since modern record-keeping began in the late 1970s, along with 2007 and 2016, reinforcing the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. Arctic sea ice has been declining for at least 40 years, and amplifying mechanisms such as the winter storms are accelerating this retreat.

Arctic sea ice extent just reached its annual minimum extent for 2019 on September 18. This season was a tie for the 2nd lowest on record, along with 2007 and 2016 and behind 2012, which holds the overall record minimum.
Zack Labe (@ZLabe)

As highlighted in the recent IPCC Ocean and Cryopshere report, these changes in September sea ice are likely unprecedented for at least 1,000 years.

Remember also that changes in the Arctic don’t just affect the immediate region: Arctic warming has been linked to the polar vortex, and weather extremes across central Europe and north America.




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Microplastics may affect how Arctic sea ice forms and melts


As we start taking into account feedback mechanisms like the winter storms, our predictions for the first Arctic sea ice free summer are indicating it will likely happen before 2050.The Conversation

Amelie Meyer, Research fellow, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The air above Antarctica is suddenly getting warmer – here’s what it means for Australia



Antarctic winds have a huge effect on weather in other places.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Harry Hendon, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Eun-Pa Lim, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Griffith Young, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Record warm temperatures above Antarctica over the coming weeks are likely to bring above-average spring temperatures and below-average rainfall across large parts of New South Wales and southern Queensland.

The warming began in the last week of August, when temperatures in the stratosphere high above the South Pole began rapidly heating in a phenomenon called “sudden stratospheric warming”.




Read more:
The winter was dry, the spring will likely be dry – here’s why


In the coming weeks the warming is forecast to intensify, and its effects will extend downward to Earth’s surface, affecting much of eastern Australia over the coming months.

The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting the strongest Antarctic warming on record, likely to exceed the previous record of September 2002.

(Left) Observation of September 2002 stratospheric warming compared to (right) 2019 forecast for September.
The forecast for 2019 was provided by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and was initialised on August 30, 2019.

What’s going on?

Every winter, westerly winds – often up to 200km per hour – develop in the stratosphere high above the South Pole and circle the polar region. The winds develop as a result of the difference in temperature over the pole (where there is no sunlight) and the Southern Ocean (where the sun still shines).

As the sun shifts southward during spring, the polar region starts to warm. This warming causes the stratospheric vortex and associated westerly winds to gradually weaken over the period of a few months.

However, in some years this breakdown can happen faster than usual. Waves of air from the lower atmosphere (from large weather systems or flow over mountains) warm the stratosphere above the South Pole, and weaken or “mix” the high-speed westerly winds.

Very rarely, if the waves are strong enough they can rapidly break down the polar vortex, actually reversing the direction of the winds so they become easterly. This is the technical definition of “sudden stratospheric warming.”

Although we have seen plenty of weak or moderate variations in the polar vortex over the past 60 years, the only other true sudden stratospheric warming event in the Southern Hemisphere was in September 2002.

In contrast, their northern counterpart occurs every other year or so during late winter of the Northern Hemisphere because of stronger and more variable tropospheric wave activity.

What can Australia expect?

Impacts from this stratospheric warming are likely to reach Earth’s surface in the next month and possibly extend through to January.

Apart from warming the Antarctic region, the most notable effect will be a shift of the Southern Ocean westerly winds towards the Equator.

For regions directly in the path of the strongest westerlies, which includes western Tasmania, New Zealand’s South Island, and Patagonia in South America, this generally results in more storminess and rainfall, and colder temperatures.

But for subtropical Australia, which largely sits north of the main belt of westerlies, the shift results in reduced rainfall, clearer skies, and warmer temperatures.

Past stratospheric warming events and associated wind changes have had their strongest effects in NSW and southern Queensland, where springtime temperatures increased, rainfall decreased and heatwaves and fire risk rose.

The influence of the stratospheric warming has been captured by the Bureau’s climate outlooks, along with the influence of other major climate drivers such as the current positive Indian Ocean Dipole, leading to a hot and dry outlook for spring.

Anomalous Australian climate conditions during the nine most significant polar vortex weakening years (1979, 1988, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2012, 2013, 2016) on both maximum and minimum temperatures, and rainfall for October-November, as compared to all other years between 1979-2016.
Bureau of Meteorology

Effects on the ozone hole and Antarctic sea ice

One positive note of sudden stratospheric warming is the reduction – or even absence altogether – of the spring Antarctic ozone hole. This is for two reasons.

First, the rapid rise of temperatures in the upper atmosphere means the super cold polar stratospheric ice clouds, which are vital for the chemical process that destroys ozone, may not even form.

Secondly, the disrupted winds carry more ozone-rich air from the tropics to the polar region, helping repair the ozone hole.

We also expect an enhanced decline in Antarctic sea ice between October and January, particularly in the eastern Ross Sea and western Amundsen Sea, as more warm water moves towards the poles due to the weaker westerly winds.




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Thanks to improvements in modelling and the Bureau’s new supercomputer, these types of events can be forecast better than ever before. Compared to 2002, when we didn’t know much about the event until after it had happened, this time we’ve had almost three weeks’ notice that a very strong warming event was coming. We also know much more about the process that has been set in train, that will affect our weather over the next one to four months.The Conversation

Harry Hendon, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Manager of Long-range Forecast Services, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Eun-Pa Lim, Senior research scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Griffith Young, Senior IT Officer, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.