, Volume 32, Issue 5, pp 711-737,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Factors contributing to the development of extreme North Atlantic cyclones and their relationship with the NAO


The occurrence of extreme cyclones is analysed in terms of their relationship to the NAO phase and the dominating environmental variables controlling their intensification. These are latent energy (equivalent potential temperature 850 hPa is used as an indicator), upper-air baroclinicity, horizontal divergence and jet stream strength. Cyclones over the North Atlantic are identified and tracked using a numerical algorithm, permitting a detailed analysis of their life cycles. Extreme cyclones are selected as the 10% most severe in terms of intensity. Investigations focus on the main strengthening phase of each cyclone. The environmental factors are related to the NAO, which affects the location and orientation of the cyclone tracks, thus explaining why extreme cyclones occur more (less) frequently during strong positive (negative) NAO phases. The enhanced number of extreme cyclones in positive NAO phases can be explained by the larger area with suitable growth conditions, which is better aligned with the cyclone tracks and is associated with increased cyclone life time and intensity. Moreover, strong intensification of cyclones is frequently linked to the occurrence of extreme values of growth factors in the immediate vicinity of the cyclone centre. Similar results are found for ECHAM5/OM1 for present day conditions, demonstrating that relationships between the environment factors and cyclones are also valid in the GCM. For future climate conditions (following the SRES A1B scenario), the results are similar, but a small increase of the frequency of extreme values is detected near the cyclone cores. On the other hand, total cyclone numbers decrease by 10% over the North Atlantic. An exception is the region near the British Isles, which features increased track density and intensity of extreme cyclones irrespective of the NAO phase. These changes are associated with an intensified jet stream close to Europe. Moreover, an enhanced frequency of explosive developments over the British Isles is found, leading to more frequent windstorms affecting Europe.

An erratum to this article can be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00382-008-0525-0