Article: Forecasting the Unpredictable
The NAO’s positive-phase tenor since the early 70swith its mild winters over the northeast US and Northern Europehas added fuel to the already fiery debate about global climate change. Undeniable is that Northern Hemispheric temperatures are now at their steamiest. And for the past 40 years, the rate of warming has been particularly brisk.
A sizeable amount of Northern Hemisphere surface temperature increase has been attributed to the NAO. But scientists are concerned about global warming’s potential backlash on the NAO. Many researchers agree that our pileup of greenhouse gases is influencing, to some extent, our recent positive trend. “The precise mechanisms by which these changes occur is what’s up for debate,” says atmospheric scientist Jim Hurrell, a director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Scientists aren’t completely clear how the NAO’s seasonal and decadal trends are prompted. But several research hotspots are offering tantalizing clues. The hopes are that one of these avenues will eventually allow forecasting of the NAO’s wayward futureor reveal a “smoking gun” that definitively explains global warming’s link to the NAO.
Only through computer models can climate scientists tease apart random occurrences from true cause-and-effect for the big-picture NAO questions. “When you want to study the complex interaction between the ocean, the atmosphere, and the land, it’s not possible to build a physical model,” says physical oceanographer Martin Visbeck of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. “We have to build computer analogs that obey the same physical laws that the climate does.” Visbeck has developed such a model used extensively to investigate the interplay between NAO and the ocean.
If you’ve watched a predicted storm careen across a garish video map on a TV weather forecast, you’ve seen a visual representation of a model. Visbeck describes the underlying computer program as a mathematical version of a “Lego world”: a globe sectioned into countless interlocking bricks. Just as on Earth, each brick in the model obeys its own geophysical laws as determined by its global position and geologic composition. Each computerized brick interacts with its neighbors in numerically describable ways. “There’s a chain reaction,” says Visbeck. “For example, if it’s warm in one box, then we know the next box downwind is going to warm up.”
Once the program is assembled, scientists can throw data into this dynamic Lego machine and watch what comes outhow the model’s version of the atmosphere, oceans, or land responds for a particular time period. To test a model’s efficacy, it’s often run in reverse to simulate the climate for a number of previous years, the results then back-checked against actual past climatic data. If the model simulation seems solid, it might be able to be run forward to forecast future events.
Visbeck singles out three recent research areas where computer models have shed brighter light on the cause of the NAO’s seasonal and decadal variability. While the most obvious route to causality seems like it’d be to uncover what drives the changes in the Icelandic and Azores pressure systems, that’s not where researchers have been looking.
“It’s hard to make a forecast for the pressure differences,” explains Visbeck. That’s because pressure systems are largely a product of highly mercurial atmospheric change. The atmosphere, as Visbeck explains, has a fairly lousy “memory.” Atmospheric eventsair temperatures, currents, and the likechange their values and directions often, rarely repeating patterns. (Scientists dub this concept, appropriately, as “chaos.”)
Scientists have turned instead to more sluggish systems, ones that project patterns for the longer term, for links to NAO activity. Ultimately, these systems can drive atmospheric change, and hence have give a better shot at being predictors.
The first example comes from a team at the Met Office, the UK’s meteorological service. The Met Office predicts the sign of the approaching winter NAO solely from ocean surface temperatures of the North Atlantic in the preceding May. By running their model of this relationship back fifty years, the team has nailed the sign of the actual winter NAO two times out of three. By operating their model forward, Met Office is attempting (with only moderate success so far) to predict the upcoming winter NAO. Their forecast for winter 2004-5? You guessed itpositive.
What’s the connection? The NAO is intimately linked with the storm track over the North Atlantic, which affects ocean temperatures beneath. By summer, the storms peter out, but the ocean can preserve its May temperature clear to winter. By then, the seawater temperatures are influencing air pressures abovethe starting point for the next NAO.
While the North Atlantic can stoke some seasonal atmospheric change, tropical seaswith their extra ration of solar warmingexert much more pronounced, long-term effects on global climate than northerly oceans. One example is El Niño’s tropical origins, but North American weather effects.
Jim Hurrell knows this about the tropics. That’s why, in 2003, he plugged winter sea surface temperatures of the Indian Ocean into a global climate model. In response, the model reproduced the weather hallmarks of a positive NAO phase.
Hurrell’s research reflects a second breakthrough on what mechanisms may be governing NAO variability. Since 1950, average winter temperatures of the Indian Ocean have heated up about .6 of a degree, with an associated increase of rainfall. Hurrell says that this tropical change is likely a direct consequence oflo and beholdglobal warming.
Hurrell suspects that the mechanism linking the Indian Ocean with the far-off Atlantic has to do with tropical waters’ effect on the west-to-east path of storms in the North Pacific. “This storm track goes around the world, so it has a ‘downstream’ effect over the North Atlantic.” As this link gets investigated further, it may be able to be used to generate long-range NAO forecasts.
A third area of big-picture NAO research is looking at what’s affecting the atmosphere from the top down rather than the bottom up. It’s fairly well-accepted these days that greenhouse gases are changing the chemistry of the stratosphere, the atmospheric layer blanketing the troposphere. The latter is the layer in which we live and where the NAO goes about its business. (Incidentally, the stratosphere was discovered by none other than our pioneering French meteorologist, Léon-Phillipe Teisserenc de Bort.)
It’s been proposed that the reduction of ozone and the influx of greenhouse gases have livened up the circulation in the sensitive stratosphere in recent years, such that its westerly flow has significantly strengthened. Some teams’ findings suggest that an intensified stratospheric circulation can egg on the troposphere below, nudging it toward a more positive NAO index. Although this coupling is highly debated, it brings up intriguing ideas: that if we could predict our anthropogenic changes to stratospheric chemistry over the next several decades, we might be able to likewise forecast the NAO’s behavior. And if we temper such changes, we could alleviate our potential effect on the NAO.
If a firm forecasting method is found, business owners, government officials, and everyday citizens will benefit: Growing seasons and crop yields could be anticipated, ecosystems could be protected, and water and energy resources could be managed and financed better. Visbeck points to his work with several Norwegian energy companies as an example: Because hydroelectric energy prices directly correlate to the NAO phase that season (high NAO = more water flow = cheaper electricity), predicting the index would help the companies plan for their purchasing of surplus energy if needed.
“It's very rewarding for a scientist to be able to say what the future might hold,” asserts Visbeck. “But more importantly, predictability allows for more insightful stewardship of our planet, of our resources, of our whole population.”
UK Met Office's winter NAO forecast
Weather Models: USA Today
General information on forecasting with weather and climate models.
More About This Resource...
Our innovative Science Bulletins are an online and exhibition program that offers the public a window into the excitement of scientific discovery. This essay was published in September 2004 as part of the NAO: Driving Climate Across the Atlantic Earth Feature.
- It begins by explaining that scientists are concerned about global warming's potential backlash on the NAO.
- It then details how computer models have shed brighter light on the cause of NAO's seasonal and decadal variability in three recent research areas.
- The essay then details how the climatic and biological data that have been hoarded for decades are, as of late, finally hitting NAO pay dirt.
Supplement a study of earth science with a classroom activity drawn from this Science Bulletin essay.
- Have students read the essay (either online or a printed copy).
- Working individually or in small groups, have then write a brief reaction to the essay in which they summarize, in their own words, what computer models have illuminated about NAO's seasonal and decadal variability.