Discovery Of Heat Wave Patterns Offers Lifesaving Advance Notice Of Extreme Weather

By Rhonda J. Miller on October 28, 2013 10:48 AM EDT

Heat Wave Patterns
Map of air flow a few miles above ground level in the Northern Hemisphere shows the type of "wavenumber-5" pattern associated with U.S. drought. This pattern includes alternating troughs, the blue contours, and ridges, the red contours, with an "H" symbol for high pressure shown at the center of each of the five ridges. High pressure tends to cause sinking air and suppress precipitation, which can allow a heat wave to develop and intensify over land areas. (Photo: Image courtesy of Haiyan Teng / Rhonda J. Miller)

Summertime heat waves don't just mean head for the beach. Extreme summer temperatures can be deadly.

Now scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have discovered atmospheric wave patterns above the Northern Hemisphere that can help predict extreme heat patterns 15-to-20 days in advance, giving communities more time to plan than the typical one-week forecast and to avoid potential deadly consequences.

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"It may be useful to monitor the atmosphere, looking for this pattern, if we find that it precedes heat waves in a predictable way," says NCAR scientist Haiyan Teng, lead author of the study published in the Oct. 27 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience. "This gives us a potential source to predict heat waves beyond the typical range of weather forecasts."

The NCAR team analyzed a 12,000-year simulation of the atmosphere over the Northern Hemisphere. After studying 6,000 U.S. heat waves in the computer model, the scientists concluded that summertime heat waves in the United States were two-to-four times more likely to occur if a distinctive "wavenumber-5" atmospheric pattern developed some 15-to-20 days ahead of time.

The "wavenumber-5" pattern is a sequence of alternating high- and low-pressure systems, in groups of five, that form a ring circling the northern mid-latitudes, several miles above the Earth's surface.

"This pattern has been documented in a number of studies by other people. Our contribution is to link it to probability of heat waves with the help of a climate model," Teng said.

The research team plans to continue searching for other circulation patterns and environmental factors, such as sea surface temperature or soil moisture,vthat may foreshadow extreme weather events, Teng told National Geographic Daily News.

"Here, we're just showing one particular circulation pattern. There may be other sources that we're not aware of," said Teng.

The heat was study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA and the National Science Foundation, which is the NCAR sponsor, according to phys.org/news. NASA scientists helped guide the project and are involved in broader research in this area.

Heat waves are among the most deadly weather phenomena on Earth. A 2006 heat wave across much of the United States and Canada was blamed for more than 600 deaths in California alone and a prolonged heat wave in Europe in 2003 may have killed more than 50,000 people, according to phys.org/news.

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