How Gulf Stream SST fronts modify Atlantic winter storms

How Gulf-Stream SST-fronts influence Atlantic winter storms

The strong horizontal gradients in sea surface temperature (SST) of the Atlantic Gulf Stream exert a detectable influence on extratropical cyclones propagating across the region. We show this in a recent paper in the journal of Climate Dynamics. In this article we conduct a sensitivity experiment where 24 winter storms taken from ERA-Interim are simulated with the regional model HARMONIE (at 10-km resolution). Each storm is simulated twice. First, using the observed SST pattern (REF). In the second simulation a smoothed SST is offered (SMTH), while lateral and upper-level boundary conditions are unmodified. In this we try to isolate the 'sole' effect of the changes in SST.

Figure: a snapshot of one of the storms as it traveled the Gulfstream. Shading shows the maximum windspeeds (m/s) recorded during the hour, contours show mean sea-level pressure below 1000mbar (in steps of 5mbar)

Each storm pair propagates approximately along the same track, however their intensities (as measured by maximal near-surface wind speed or 850-hPa relative vorticity) differ up to 25% either sign. A 30-member ensemble created for one of the storms shows that on a single-storm level the response is systematic rather than random. To explain the broad response in storm strength, we show that the SST-adjustment modifies two environmental parameters: surface latent heat flux (LHF) and low-level baroclinicity (B). LHF influences storms by modifying diabatic heating and boundary-layer processes such as vertical mixing. The position of each storm's track relative to the SST-front is important. South of the SST-front the smoothing leads to lower SST, reduced LHF and storms with generally weaker maximum near-surface winds. North of the SST-front the increased LHF tend to enhance the winds, but the accompanying changes in baroclinicity are not necessarily favourable. Together these mechanisms explain up to 80% of the variability in the near-surface maximal wind speed change. Because the mechanisms are less effective in explaining more dynamics-oriented indicators like 850hPa relative vorticity, we hypothesise that part of the wind-speed change is related to adjustment of the boundary-layer processes in response to the LHF and B changes.

Reference: How Gulf-Stream SST-fronts influence Atlantic winter storms: Results from a downscaling experiment with HARMONIE to the role of modified latent heat fluxes and low-level baroclinicity. Hylke de Vries, S. Scher, R. Haarsma, S. Drijfhout and A.J. van Delden. The article is available upon request.


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