, Volume 38, Issue 9-10, pp 2037-2053
Date: 30 Apr 2011

Changes in extratropical storm track cloudiness 1983–2008: observational support for a poleward shift

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Abstract

Climate model simulations suggest that the extratropical storm tracks will shift poleward as a consequence of global warming. In this study the northern and southern hemisphere storm tracks over the Pacific and Atlantic ocean basins are studied using observational data, primarily from the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project, ISCCP. Potential shifts in the storm tracks are examined using the observed cloud structures as proxies for cyclone activity. Different data analysis methods are employed, with the objective to address difficulties and uncertainties in using ISCCP data for regional trend analysis. In particular, three data filtering techniques are explored; excluding specific problematic regions from the analysis, regressing out a spurious viewing geometry effect, and excluding specific cloud types from the analysis. These adjustments all, to varying degree, moderate the cloud trends in the original data but leave the qualitative aspects of those trends largely unaffected. Therefore, our analysis suggests that ISCCP data can be used to interpret regional trends in cloudiness, provided that data and instrumental artefacts are recognized and accounted for. The variation in magnitude between trends emerging from application of different data correction methods, allows us to estimate possible ranges for the observational changes. It is found that the storm tracks, here represented by the extent of the midlatitude-centered band of maximum cloud cover over the studied ocean basins, experience a poleward shift as well as a narrowing over the 25 year period covered by ISCCP. The observed magnitudes of these effects are larger than in current generation climate models (CMIP3). The magnitude of the shift is particularly large in the northern hemisphere Atlantic. This is also the one of the four regions in which imperfect data primarily prevents us from drawing firm conclusions. The shifted path and reduced extent of the storm track cloudiness is accompanied by a regional reduction in total cloud cover. This decrease in cloudiness can primarily be ascribed to low level clouds, whereas the upper level cloud fraction actually increases, according to ISCCP. Independent satellite observations of radiative fluxes at the top of the atmosphere are consistent with the changes in total cloud cover. The shift in cloudiness is also supported by a shift in central position of the mid-troposphere meridional temperature gradient. We do not find support for aerosols playing a significant role in the satellite observed changes in cloudiness. The observed changes in storm track cloudiness can be related to local cloud-induced changes in radiative forcing, using ERBE and CERES radiative fluxes. The shortwave and the longwave components are found to act together, leading to a positive (warming) net radiative effect in response to the cloud changes in the storm track regions, indicative of positive cloud feedback. Among the CMIP3 models that simulate poleward shifts in all four storm track areas, all but one show decreasing cloud amount on a global mean scale in response to increased CO2 forcing, further consistent with positive cloud feedback. Models with low equilibrium climate sensitivity to a lesser extent than higher-sensitivity models simulate a poleward shift of the storm tracks.