Climate Change Projected To Intensify Arctic Cyclones

By James Anderson •  Updated: 11/17/22 •  5 min read

NASA scientists say that by the end of this century, spring cyclones in the Arctic will be stronger. This is because sea ice is melting and temperatures are rising quickly. These conditions will cause stronger storms to form, bringing warmer air and more moisture into the Arctic.

Every year, hurricanes threaten the North American coastlines, and they appear to be intensifying as the climate changes. Storms like this can also hit colder places further north, and new research shows that these storms will also get more intense.

In terms of pressure, wind speed, and precipitation, Arctic cyclones will be much stronger.

“Initially, storms will drop more snowfall, but as air temperatures continue to rise and we cross above freezing temperatures, storms will be dropping rainfall, which is a really big change for the sea ice pack,”

said study leader Dr. Chelsea Parker, a research scientist at the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Arctic Sea Ice Retreat Push And Pull

arctic cyclone intensified

The maps above show simulated storm tracks and wind speeds of nine Arctic cyclones. The left image represents simulated storm tracks as they hit the Arctic in the past decade. The right image shows how the cyclones are projected to respond to climate change by the end of the century. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens, using data from Parker, C.L. et al

Marine weather forecasting is hard, but it’s important because stronger storms can harm shipping, oil and gas drilling and extraction, fishing, Arctic ecosystems and biodiversity, and other activities.

“It’s an interesting push and pull because as the sea ice retreats, that opens up more area for these activities to take place, but it also might come with more dangerous weather,”

said Parker.

Computer simulations of nine cyclones that struck the Arctic in the last ten years were examined by Parker and colleagues. Parker noted that the behaviour of those spring storms did not seem to be significantly impacted by the warming and sea ice loss of recent decades.

Faster, More Intense Arctic Cyclone Winds

The Coupled Model Intercomparison Projects results were then used to simulate an Arctic with even warmer temperatures and less sea ice cover in order to better understand future conditions.

“When we add future projected climate change to the computer simulation, we see a really big response from the cyclones,”

Parker said.

The team discovered that, depending on the characteristics of the storm and the local environment, cyclone wind speeds could rise as high as 38 mph by the end of the century. According to Parker, the length of the storm’s peak intensity could increase by up to 30%, and precipitation will probably get heavier.

If cyclones begin to bring rain in the spring, sea ice may begin to melt sooner, and less will survive the summer melt season. With these changes, the ocean will be able to send more energy into the atmosphere for deep convection, making it more likely that storms will get stronger and last longer.

Simulations And Observations

arctic cyclone intensified - The historical and future March climate change deltas calculated from Climate Model Intercomparison Project 6 results

The average future (2070–2100) minus the average current climate.
The simulated tracks of cyclones A–C in the current climate are overlain. Markers show the end of the trajectories.
Credit: Nature Communications (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-34126-7

Much like hurricanes in low and mid-latitudes, Arctic cyclones use deep convection energy like fuel in an engine. Storms in the coming decades could travel farther north and reach areas of the Arctic that are typically left untouched.

The risks to Arctic ecosystems, communities, and economic and industrial activities may increase as a result of the changing weather.

Parker and colleagues compared their model simulations with first-hand observations of a few Arctic storms made in 2020 by the international MOSAiC expedition in order to give their models some real-world context. The new study is one of the first to show the direct response of cyclones to recent and future climate change by combining case studies from recent storms with high-resolution climate simulations.

Arctic Warming

MOSAiC was a crucial component for the researchers because it allowed them to use actual measurements to validate their model. Typically, there is not much weather station data from the Arctic to be able to do that.

“We’re able to say that our current climate simulations of these cyclones are realistic and that we can trust what the model is doing,”

Parker said.

The Arctic is warming almost four times as quickly as the rest of the planet, according to observations from space and on the ground.

Scientists need more information about Arctic cyclones to make more accurate predictions about how the storms will affect the already declining sea ice, as well as how the loss of ice will affect storm intensity. Scientists researching the effects of the planet’s rapid warming will benefit from gaining a better understanding of those interactions.

Reference: Parker, C.L., Mooney, P.A., Webster, M.A. et al. The influence of recent and future climate change on spring Arctic cyclones. Nat Commun 13, 6514 (2022).