The stratosphere is the layer of the atmosphere situated between 10km and 50km above the earth. It is situated directly above the troposphere, the first layer of the atmosphere that is directly responsible for the weather that we receive. The boundary between the stratosphere and the troposphere is known as the tropopause. The air pressure ranges from around 100hPa at the lower levels of the stratosphere to around 1hPa at the upper levels. The middle stratosphere is often considered to be around the 30hPa level.
Every winter the stratosphere cools down dramatically as less solar UV radiation is absorbed by the ozone content in the stratosphere. The difference in the temperature between the North Pole and the latitudes further south creates a strong vortex – the wintertime stratospheric polar vortex. The colder the stratosphere, the stronger this vortex becomes. The stratospheric vortex has a strong relationship with the tropospheric vortex below. The stronger the stratospheric vortex, the stronger the tropospheric vortex becomes.
The strength and position of the tropospheric vortex influences the type of weather that we are likely to experience. A strong polar vortex is more likely to herald a positive AO with the resultant jet stream track bringing warmer wet southwesterly winds. A weaker polar vortex can contribute to a negative AO with the resultant mild wet weather tracking further south.
One warming event that can occur in the stratospheric winter is a Sudden Stratospheric Warming ( SSW) or also known as a Major Midwinter Warming (MMW). This as the name suggests a rather dramatic event. Normally the polar night jet at the boundary of the polar vortex demarcates the boundary between warmer tropical and cooler polar stratospheric air (and ozone levels) and is very difficult to penetrate. SSWs can be caused by large-scale planetary waves being deflected up into the stratosphere and towards the North Pole, often after a strong mountain torque event. These waves can introduce warmer temperatures into the polar stratosphere and can seriously disrupt the stratospheric vortex, leading to a slowing or even reversal of the vortex. This can occur by the vortex being displaced off the pole – a displacement SSW, or by the vortex being split in two – a splitting SSW.
The effects of a SSW can be transmitted into the troposphere as the propagation of the SSW occurs and this can have a number of consequences. There is a higher incidence of northern blocking after SSW’s but we are all aware that not every SSW leads to northern blocking. Any northern blocking can lead to cold air from the tropospheric Arctic flooding south and colder conditions to latitudes further south can ensue. There is often thought to be a time lag between a SSW and northern blocking from any downward propagation of negative mean zonal winds from the stratosphere. This has been quoted as up to 6 weeks though it can be a lot quicker if the polar vortex is ripped in two following a split SSW.
One noticeable aspect of the recent previous winters is how the stratosphere has been susceptible to wave breaking from the troposphere through the lower reaches of the polar stratosphere - not over the top as seen in the SSWs. This has led to periods of sustained tropospheric high latitude blocking and repeated lower disruption of the stratospheric polar vortex. This has coincided with a warmer stratosphere where the mean zonal winds have been reduced and has led to some of the most potent winter spells witnessed in recent years.
Courtesy of chionomaniac on Net-weather
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