During winter, the poles enter permanent darkness (“the polar night”) and undergo strong radiative cooling. In the stratosphere – a dry, stable layer of the atmosphere around 10-50 km above the surface – this cooling is particularly effective. By thermal wind balance, the strong polar cooling leads to the formation of the stratospheric polar vortex (SPV), a planetary scale westerly circulation that sits atop each winter pole (Figure 1).
In the Northern Hemisphere, the SPV is highly variable, thanks to the generation of large planetary waves in the mid-latitude westerly flow (driven primarily by mountains and land-sea contrast around the continents), which can propagate vertically into the stratosphere and break there, decelerating and deforming the SPV and warming the stratosphere. In the Antarctic, the presence of the Southern Ocean in the mid-to-high latitudes encircling Antarctica means no similar waves are typically produced. The Antarctic SPV is therefore much stronger than its Arctic counterpart, which is why the ozone hole developed there rather than over the Arctic – with the colder temperatures inside the vortex allowing for the formation of polar stratospheric clouds, which catalyse the reactions that deplete ozone.
Now, since all the weather we experience takes place in the troposphere, you might wonder why we should worry about what happens in the layer above that. In the past, numerical weather prediction models did not resolve the stratosphere, because it wasn’t considered worth the extra computational resources. However, it is now known that the state of the SPV can act as a boundary condition to weather forecasts (especially long-range forecasts that extend beyond 2 weeks ahead, e.g. Scaife et al. (2016)) in a similar way to sea surface temperatures (SSTs). One of the reasons for this is the longer timescales present in the stratosphere (also analogous to SSTs) compared with tropospheric weather systems – an anomaly present in the stratosphere has a long persistence time. But how do these stratospheric anomalies influence the weather we experience?
Let’s take one particularly exciting case of SPV variability: major sudden stratospheric warmings (SSWs). SSWs (defined by the 10 hPa 60°N zonal-mean zonal wind reversing from westerlies to easterlies) occur on average 6 times per decade (Butler et al. 2017) and are associated with either a displacement of the SPV off the Pole, or a split of the SPV into two daughter vortices. Coincident with this is a rapid heating of the polar stratosphere (~50°C in a few days) due to adiabatic warming of descending air – hence the name. The most recent major SSW occurred on 2 January 2019 (Figure 2), but one also occurred on 12 February 2018.
Following a major SSW, the easterly winds descend through the stratosphere over the next few weeks and tend to persist for weeks to months in the lower stratosphere. What happens beneath that in the troposphere is then more varied, but on average there is a transition to a negative Northern Annular Mode (NAM). In a negative NAM, the mid-latitude westerlies associated with the tropospheric jet stream weaken and shift equatorward, increasing the likelihood of cold air outbreaks (and, yes, snow!) in places like the UK and northern Europe (Figure 3). However, that’s only the average response!
In February-March 2018, we did indeed see this response following a major SSW – immortalised as the ‘Beast from the East’ with record-breaking cold weather and heavy snowfall in the UK (e.g. Greening and Hodgson 2019). But following the January 2019 SSW, there was no similar weather pattern. Figure 4 shows a cross-section of polar cap geopotential height anomalies (analogous to the NAM). Reds effectively indicate weaker westerly winds, and the major SSW is evident in the centre (second dashed line from the left). However, it doesn’t persistently “drip” down into the troposphere below 200 hPa, with only a brief “drip” in early February 2019. For the most part, the stratosphere and troposphere did not “talk” to each other.
This SSW was thus “non-downward propagating” (Karpechko et al. 2017), which is the case with somewhere close to half of the observed events.
Some research suggests this may be due to the type of SSW (split vs. displacement, e.g. Mitchell et al. 2013), the tropospheric weather regimes present following the SSW (e.g. Charlton-Perez et al. 2018), the evolution of the SSW (e.g. Karpechko et al. 2017), the interaction of the vertically-propagating waves with the SPV at the time of the SSW (e.g. Kodera et al. 2016), or some combination of those. Perhaps other forcing from the troposphere may dominate over the signal from the stratosphere – such as the teleconnection of the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) to the North Atlantic weather regimes (e.g. Cassou 2008).
Thus, whilst an SSW may make cold weather more likely, it’s by no means guaranteed – and we still don’t fully understand the mechanisms involved with downward coupling. That’s one of the reasons why, regardless of what the tabloids may tell you, sudden stratospheric warming does not always guarantee sudden snow shoveling!
Butler, A. H., J. P. Sjoberg, D. J. Seidel, and K. H. Rosenlof, 2017: A sudden stratospheric warming compendium. Earth System Science Data, https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-9-63-2017
Cassou, C., 2008: Intraseasonal interaction between the Madden–Julian Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Nature, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07286
Charlton-Perez, A. J., L. Ferranti, and R. W. Lee, 2018: The influence of the stratospheric state on North Atlantic weather regimes. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.3280
Greening, K., and A. Hodgson, 2019: Atmospheric analysis of the cold late February and early March 2018 over the UK. Weather, https://doi.org/10.1002/wea.3467
Karpechko, A. Yu., P. Hitchcock, D. H. W. Peters, and A. Schneidereit, 2017: Predictability of downward propagation of major sudden stratospheric warmings. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.3017
Kodera, K., H. Mukougawa, P. Maury, M. Ueda, and C. Claud, 2016: Absorbing and reflecting sudden stratospheric warming events and their relationship with tropospheric circulation. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, https://doi.org/10.1002/2015JD023359
Lee, S. H., and A. H. Butler, 2019: The 2018-2019 Arctic stratospheric polar vortex. Weather, https://doi.org/10.1002/wea.3643
Mitchell, D. M., L. J. Gray, J. Antsey, M. P. Baldwin, and A. J. Charlton-Perez, 2013: The Influence of Stratospheric Vortex Displacements and Splits on Surface Climate. Journal of Climate, https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00030.1
Scaife, A. A., A. Yu. Karpechko, M. P. Baldwin, A. Brookshaw, A. H. Butler, R. Eade, M. Gordon, C. MacLachlan, N. Martin, N. Dunstone, and D. Smith, 2016: Seasonal winter forecasts and the stratosphere. Atmospheric Science Letters, https://doi.org/10.1002/asl.598
Tripathi, O. P, A. Charlton-Perez, M. Sigmond, and F. Vitart, 2015: Enhanced long-range forecast skill in boreal winter following stratospheric strong vortex conditions. Environmental Research Letters, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/10/104007