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Publication Date
30 March 2015

Persistent Cold Air Outbreaks over North America in a Warming Climate



This study examines future changes of cold air outbreaks (CAOs) using a multi-model ensemble of global climate simulations from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 and high resolution regional climate simulations. Overall, climate models agree on a dip in CAO duration across North America, but the percentage change is consistently smaller from western Canada to the upper mid-western US with historically more frequent CAO. By decomposing the changes of the probability density function of daily surface temperature into changes due to mean warming and changes in standard deviation (std) and skewness/higher order moments, the contributions of each factor to CAO changes are quantified. Results show that CAO changes can be explained largely by the mean warming, but the decrease in temperature std contributes to about 20% reduction of CAO from Alaska to northeastern US and eastern Canada possibly due to the Arctic amplification and weakening of storm track. A thermodynamical modulation of the skewness called the '0 °C mode' effect is found to operate prominently along the 0 °C isotherm hemispherically and reduce CAO in western and northeastern US with winter snow cover by up to 10%. This effect also produces a manifold increase in CAO events over the Arctic sea ice. An increased frequency in atmospheric blocking also contributes to increases in CAO duration over Alaska and the Arctic region. Regional simulations revealed more contributions of existing snowpack to CAO in the near future over the Rocky Mountain, southwestern US, and Great Lakes areas through surface albedo effects. Overall, the multi-model projections emphasize that cold extremes do not completely disappear in a warming climate. Concomitant with the relatively smaller reduction in CAO events in northwestern US, the top five most extreme CAO events may still occur, and wind chill will continue to have societal impacts in that region.

“Persistent Cold Air Outbreaks Over North America In A Warming Climate”. 2015. Environmental Research Letters 10. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/4/044001.
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