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You are watching: How do the prevailing westerlies affect the climate of europe


18 January 2011 through Tim Woollings

Severe weather has actually been big news in current years. The cold europe winter the 2009-10 was adhered to by a deadly heatwave in Russia and also devastating floods in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, human being want to recognize why these events happen and whether castle are brought about by climate change. Tim Woollings responds.

The key feature the links many severe weather occasions is their persistence. Individual storms deserve to be very damaging of course, yet when storm ~ storm access time the same region the impacts are lot worse.

Similarly, a duration of settled weather is warmly received, however as weeks without rainfall mountain up, it begins to outstay the welcome. These are examples of long-lived weather regimes and, exterior the tropics, this regimes space usually attached in some means to a movement of the jet streams.

The jet streams room literally jet of fast-moving waiting that room strongest about 10km increase in the environment - approximately the level where airliners fly. They are still felt at the surface, however, and also in Europe our prevailing westerly winds are part of the west-to-east flow of air across the Atlantic, dubbed the north Atlantic jet stream. Jet streams steer storm systems, so alters in the jet stream recognize which areas are battered by storms and also which room starved that rainfall.

Jet streams differ in toughness from week come week. Among the most typical variations in the north Atlantic jet present is because that the whole jet to shift to the phibìc or the south. These shifts are described as the phibìc Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and they have a specifically strong influence on the weather in Europe.

Jet streams and also persistent weather

The prevailing westerly winds have actually a moderating, "maritime" influence on Europe, keeping us warm in winter (when the Atlantic s is warmer 보다 the land) and also cool in summer (when the floor is warmer). The gall cold winter of 2009-10 to be a standard example the a an unfavorable NAO event, when the jet stream shifted to the south and Europe shed its maritime influence.

It"s the persistence of these shifts that has actually such solid effects: in this case the jet stream stayed south for lot of the winter, and also Europe remained gripped by cold.

While the phibìc Atlantic jet stream generally points around due east, straight across the Atlantic, it frequently meanders north and also south. These meanders space the signature that so-called Rossby waves, i beg your pardon are similar to the familiar waves on the surface of water.

However, rather of water moving up and down, Rossby tide consist of big air masses, frequently thousands of kilometres across, relocating north and south. Once an wait mass move north it starts come spin clockwise (when perceived from above), developing what"s called an anticyclonic weather system - a high-pressure system associated with worked out weather.

When wait moves south it spins anti-clockwise and becomes cyclonic - a low-pressure system which is at risk to wet weather. A Rossby tide can therefore lead to a wire of alternate high- and also low-pressure systems, v the jet stream snaking about them from west to east.


Some instances of jet present winds throughout weather regimes, through high and also low push systems marked.

Like water waves, Rossby waves generally move family member to an observer ~ above the ground, and this movement leads to transforms in the weather native week to week. In fact, the Rossby waves themselves always move in the direction of the west, which method they are always swimming "upstream" versus the eastward-flowing jet.

If problems are right and also the wave rate matches the of the jet, the tide will continue to be stationary. Climate the high- and also low-pressure systems are no longer moving family member to the ground, and a persistent weather regime is born.

Summer 2007 was a an excellent example the this: a low-pressure device remained stationary over the UK and also led to widespread flooding, while simply downstream a high-pressure system lugged heatwaves and also drought come the Mediterranean and also Eastern Europe. The UK had actually the trough the the wave and Eastern Europe had the height - view the top right image.

When waves on the s surface end up being too huge they overturn and break, resulting in an extremely turbulent motion. As soon as Rossby tide break, the resulting weather instance is recognized as blocking. In this instance the turbulent circulation often becomes overcame by an anticyclonic wait mass reduced off native its origin in the subtropics. This high-pressure mechanism blocks the typical passage of the jet stream, and a routine of dry, cleared up weather set in.

When this wake up in winter, blocking leads to a bile cold spell, together the soft westerly winds are changed by winds bringing cold continental air indigenous the east. When it happens in summer the result is drought and also heatwaves, and also blocking added to the events seen this summer in Russia. At the exact same time, downstream of Russia, a Rossby tide trough remained and also interacted with the monsoon system to bring flooding come Pakistan.

Is climate change the culprit?

So, is climate change to blame? The quick answer is no, yet the longer answer is much more complicated. There is a renowned analogy between weather regimes and rolling a dice. Imagine you have a loaded dice that comes up with a six much more often 보다 it should, then imagine you role the dice and it come up six.

Now questioning yourself, walk you acquire that six due to the fact that the dice is invited or would it have actually come increase anyway? through loading the dice friend have readjusted the statistics of just how it behaves over numerous rolls - if you role it 1,000 times and get a 6 on 500 that those rolls, you recognize that"s because the dice is loaded yet you can"t attribute any type of individual six to the fact.

That"s the equivalent of the question around climate adjust - by including greenhouse gases to the environment we are properly loading the dice, so the the statistics the climate are changed. Yet it does no make sense to asking if any given weather regime occurred because of climate change. Persistent weather regimes such as the examples above are, thankfully, relatively rare, but they room not unprecedented and they might well have happened anyway.

To start to prize the climate change question properly, we need to look at the number of these occasions over several decades. That course, we"d quite not wait because that several years to watch if the incident of particular weather regimes is changing, so us look at numerous years the simulated weather data from climate models. Here, however, over there is still much uncertainty.

Climate models are starting to display some commitment that the jet streams will transition slightly closer to the poles in response to boosts in greenhouse gases, however there is still substantial disagreement in between different models.

This discrepancy will only be decreased through steady innovation in our understanding and modelling of climate. The future is particularly uncertain for regions choose Europe, who climate is for this reason strongly affected by the jet present - since Europe lies in ~ the boundary between maritime and also continental climate zones it is specifically sensitive to alters in the winds.

So have the right to we yes, really say nothing around whether occasions like these will certainly become more common? One thing we have the right to say is that even if the statistics of weather regimes perform not change, we may feel the influence of several of them much more strongly.

In particular, if the lift temperature is a few degrees higher than that is now, cleared up weather regimes in the summer will lead to an ext intense heatwaves and also droughts than they perform now.

To stretch the dice analogy a bit further, this is like having actually a larger bet top top the result of our throw, for this reason we"re fight harder as soon as the dice don"t walk our way.

See more: What Does Strawberry Letter 23 Mean, Why Is Strawberry Letter 23 Not 22

Dr Tim Woollings is a fellow at the walker Institute because that Climate device Research at the college of Reading.t.j.woollings

"Dynamical influences on european climate: an uncertain future - T Woollings (2010). Phil infectious diseases worldwide R Soc A, 368:3733-56 (doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0040).