Arctic cyclones more common than previously thought

Dec 11, 2013

From 2000 to 2010, about 1,900 cyclones churned across the top of the world each year, leaving warm water and air in their wakes—and melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

That's about 40 percent more than previously thought, according to a new analysis of these Arctic storms.

A 40 percent difference in the number of cyclones could be important to anyone who lives north of 55 degrees latitude—the area of the study, which includes the northern reaches of Canada, Scandinavia and Russia, along with the state of Alaska.

The finding is also important to researchers who want to get a clear picture of current weather patterns, and a better understanding of potential climate change in the future, explained David Bromwich, professor of geography at The Ohio State University and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center.

The study was presented Thursday, Dec. 12 at the American Geophysical Union meeting, in a poster co-authored by his colleagues Natalia Tilinina and Sergey Gulev of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Moscow State University.

"We now know there were more cyclones than previously thought, simply because we've gotten better at detecting them," Bromwich said.

Cyclones are zones of low atmospheric pressure that have wind circulating around them. They can form over land or water, and go by different names depending on their size and where they are located. In Columbus, Ohio, for instance, a low-pressure system in December would simply be called a winter storm. Extreme low-pressure systems formed in the tropical waters can be called hurricanes or typhoons.

How could anyone miss a storm as big as a cyclone? You might think they are easy to detect, but as it turns out, many of the cyclones that were missed were small in size and short in duration, or occurred in unpopulated areas. Yet researchers need to know about all the storms that have occurred if they are to get a complete picture of storm trends in the region.

"We can't yet tell if the number of cyclones is increasing or decreasing, because that would take a multidecade view. We do know that, since 2000, there have been a lot of rapid changes in the Arctic—Greenland ice melting, tundra thawing—so we can say that we're capturing a good view of what's happening in the Arctic during the current time of rapid changes," Bromwich said.

Bromwich leads the Arctic System Reanalysis (ASR) collaboration, which uses statistics and computer algorithms to combine and re-examine diverse sources of historical weather information, such as satellite imagery, weather balloons, buoys and weather stations on the ground.

"There is actually so much information, it's hard to know what to do with it all. Each piece of data tells a different part of the story—temperature, air pressure, wind, precipitation—and we try to take all of these data and blend them together in a coherent way," Bromwich said.

The actual computations happen at the Ohio Supercomputer Center, and the combined ASR data are made publicly available to scientists.

Two such scientists are cyclone experts Tilinina and Gulev, who worked with Bromwich to look for evidence of telltale changes in wind direction and air pressure in the ASR data. They compared the results to three other data re-analysis groups, all of which combine global weather data.

"We found that ASR provides new vision of the cyclone activity in high latitudes, showing that the Arctic is much more densely populated with cyclones than was suggested by the global re-analyses," Tilinina said.

One global data set used for comparison was ERA-Interim, which is generated by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. Focusing on ERA-Interim data for latitudes north of 55 degrees, Tilinina and Gulev identified more than 1,200 cyclones per year between 2000 and 2010. For the same time period, ASR data yielded more than 1,900 cyclones per year.

When they narrowed their search to cyclones that occurred directly over the Arctic Ocean, they found more than 200 per year in ERA-Interim, and a little over 300 per year in ASR.

There was good agreement between all the data sets when it came to big cyclones, the researchers found, but the Arctic-centered ASR appeared to catch smaller, shorter-lived cyclones that escaped detection in the larger, global data sets. The ASR data also provided more detail on the biggest cyclones, capturing the very beginning of the storms earlier and tracking their decay longer.

Extreme Arctic cyclones are of special concern to climate scientists because they melt , Bromwich said.

"When a cyclone goes over water, it mixes the water up. In the tropical latitudes, surface water is warm, and hurricanes churn cold water from the deep up to the surface. In the Arctic, it's the exact opposite: there's warmer water below, and the cyclone churns that up to the surface, so the ice melts."

As an example, he cited the especially large cyclone that hit the Arctic in August 2012, which scientists believe played a significant role in the record retreat of sea ice that year.

Explore further: New NASA animations show massive rainfall totals from 2013 Philippine Tropical Cyclones

More information: Poster A43C-0280, "Storm tracks in Arctic System Reanalysis - New View of Polar Cyclone Activity," will be presented on Thursday, Dec. 12 from 1:40-6:00 p.m. PT in Hall A-C of Moscone South.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Atmospheric boundary layer exacerbated mega heat waves

2 hours ago

The extreme nature of the heat waves of 2003 in Western Europe and of 2010 in Russia and Eastern Europe even surprised scientists at the time. NWO Veni researcher Ryan Teuling from Wageningen University says ...

Magnitude-7.2 earthquake shakes Mexican capital

Apr 18, 2014

A powerful magnitude-7.2 earthquake shook central and southern Mexico on Friday, sending panicked people into the streets. Some walls cracked and fell, but there were no reports of major damage or casualties.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ScooterG
1 / 5 (3) Dec 19, 2013
"A 40 percent difference in the number of cyclones could be important to anyone who lives north of 55 degrees latitude"

Right. And a 40 percent difference might also be a factor in the overall picture of ice melt and the root cause of it.

The takeaway on every single article concerning AGW is that we do not know enough about it (AGW) to base a taxation scheme on it.

Maggnus
5 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2013
Right. And a 40 percent difference might also be a factor in the overall picture of ice melt and the root cause of it.
No, just because they weren't previously known about doesn't mean they weren't there. The root cause of the melting remains the higher temperatures being experience in the Arctic as a result of the human caused imbalance of CO2 in the air. See here for a starter: http://www.grida....r-03.pdf
The takeaway on every single article concerning AGW is that we do not know enough about it (AGW) to base a taxation scheme on it.
And that's the actual root of your imagined conspiracy isn't it? You think that a carbon tax will be too onerous, but you don't actually know how to argue the case against it without resorting to ad hominum attacks on researchers and scientists. Two truths there: the science is sound, and you don't like the science because it gives a basis for introducing a new tax.

More news stories