Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Frozen jet stream links Pakistan floods, Russian fires

Raging wildfires in western Russia have reportedly doubled average daily death rates in Moscow. Diluvial rains over northern Pakistan are surging south – the UN reports that 6 million have been affected by the resulting floods.

It now seems that these two apparently disconnected events have a common cause. They are linked to the heatwave that killed more than 60 in Japan, and the end of the warm spell in western Europe. The unusual weather in the US and Canada last month also has a similar cause.

According to meteorologists monitoring the atmosphere above the northern hemisphere, unusual holding patterns in the jet stream are to blame. As a result, weather systems sat still. Temperatures rocketed and rainfall reached extremes.

Renowned for its influence on European and Asian weather, the jet stream flows between 7 and 12 kilometres above ground. In its basic form it is a current of fast-moving air that bobs north and south as it rushes around the globe from west to east. Its wave-like shape is caused by Rossby waves – powerful spinning wind currents that push the jet stream alternately north and south like a giant game of pinball.

In recent weeks, meteorologists have noticed a change in the jet stream's normal pattern. Its waves normally shift east, dragging weather systems along with it. But in mid-July they ground to a halt, says Mike Blackburn of the University of Reading, UK (see diagram). There was a similar pattern over the US in late June.

Stationary patterns in the jet stream are called "blocking events". They are the consequence of strong Rossby waves, which push westward against the flow of the jet stream. They are normally overpowered by the jet stream's eastward flow, but they can match it if they get strong enough. When this happens, the jet stream's meanders hold steady, says Blackburn, creating the perfect conditions for extreme weather.

A static jet stream freezes in place the weather systems that sit inside the peaks and troughs of its meanders. Warm air to the south of the jet stream gets sucked north into the "peaks". The "troughs" on the other hand, draw in cold, low-pressure air from the north. Normally, these systems are constantly on the move – but not during a blocking event.

No comments:

Post a Comment