Why Is the Southern Hemisphere Stormier? Scientists Solve a Century-Old Mystery

Topographical Map of the World

Topographical map of the world, with higher mountain ranges in dark brown and lower areas in green. The Northern Hemisphere has more land mass and higher mountains than the Southern Hemisphere, which contributes in part to fewer storms, according to a new study. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Research from the University of Chicago provides the first clear explanation for the difference in storms and demonstrates that storms are becoming more severe over time.

For centuries, sailors who had traveled the world knew that the most powerful storms were located in the Southern Hemisphere. “The waves ran mountain-high and threatened to overwhelm [the ship] at every roll,” wrote one passenger on an 1849 voyage rounding the tip of South America.

Years later, scientists analyzing satellite data confirmed sailors’ observations that the Southern Hemisphere experiences about 24% more storms than the Northern Hemisphere. However, the reason for this discrepancy was not known.

A new study led by University of Chicago climate scientist Tiffany Shaw lays out the first concrete explanation for this phenomenon. Shaw and her colleagues found two major culprits: ocean circulation and the large mountain ranges in the Northern Hemisphere.

The study also found that this storminess asymmetry has increased since the beginning of the satellite era in the 1980s. The increase was shown to be qualitatively consistent with climate change forecasts from physics-based models.

‘A tale of two hemispheres’

For a long time, we didn’t know very much about the weather in the Southern Hemisphere: most of the ways we observe weather are land-based, and the Southern Hemisphere has much more ocean than the Northern Hemisphere does.

But with the advent of satellite-based global observing in the 1980s, we could quantify just how extreme the difference was. The Southern Hemisphere has a stronger jet stream and more intense weather events.

Ideas had been circulated, but no one had established a definitive explanation for this asymmetry. Shaw—along with Osamu Miyawaki (PhD’22, now at the National Center for Atmospheric Research) and the University of Washington’s Aaron Donohoe—had hypotheses from their own and other previous studies, but they wanted to take the next step. This meant bringing together multiple lines of evidence, from observations, theory, and physics-based simulations of Earth’s climate.

“You can’t put the Earth in a jar,” Shaw explained, “so instead we use climate models built on the laws of physics and run experiments to test our hypotheses.”

They used a numerical model of Earth’s climate built on the laws of physics that reproduced the observations. Then they removed different variables one at a time and quantified each one’s impact on storminess.

The first variable they tested was topography. Large mountain ranges disrupt airflow in a way that reduces storms, and there are more mountain ranges in the Northern Hemisphere.

Indeed, when the scientists flattened every mountain on Earth, about half the difference in storminess between the two hemispheres disappeared.

The other half had to do with ocean circulation. Water moves around the globe like a very slow but powerful conveyor belt: it sinks in the Arctic, travels along the bottom of the ocean, rises near Antarctica, and then flows up near the surface, carrying energy with it. This creates an energy difference between the two hemispheres. When the scientists tried eliminating this conveyor belt, they saw the other half of the difference in storminess disappear.

Getting even stormier

Having answered the fundamental question regarding why the southern hemisphere is stormier, the researchers moved on to examine how storminess has changed since we’ve been able to track it.

Looking over past decades of observations, they found that the storminess asymmetry has increased over the satellite era beginning in the 1980s. That is, the Southern Hemisphere is getting even stormier, whereas the change on average in the Northern Hemisphere has been negligible.

The Southern Hemisphere’s storminess changes were connected to changes in the ocean. They found a similar ocean influence is occurring in the Northern Hemisphere, but its effect is canceled out by the absorption of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere due to the loss of sea ice and snow.

The scientists checked and found that models used to forecast climate change as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report were showing the same signals—increasing storminess in the Southern Hemisphere and negligible changes in the Northern—which serves as an important independent check on the accuracy of these models.

It may be surprising that such a deceptively simple question—why one hemisphere is stormier than another—went unanswered for so long, but Shaw explained that the field of weather and climate physics is relatively young compared to many other fields.

It was only after World War II that scientists began to build models of the physics driving large-scale weather and climate (of which key contributions were made at the University of Chicago by Prof. Carl-Gustaf Rossby).

But having a deep understanding of the physical mechanisms behind the climate and its response to human-caused changes, such as those laid out in this study, are crucial for predicting and understanding what will happen as climate change accelerates.

“By laying this foundation of understanding, we increase confidence in climate change projections and thereby help society better prepare for the impacts of climate change,” Shaw said. “One of the major threads in my research is to understand if models are giving us good information now so that we can trust what they say about the future. The stakes are high and it’s important to get the right answer for the right reason.”

Reference: “Stormier Southern Hemisphere induced by topography and ocean circulation” by Tiffany A. Shaw, Osamu Miyawaki and Aaron Donohoe, 5 December 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2123512119

5 Comments on "Why Is the Southern Hemisphere Stormier? Scientists Solve a Century-Old Mystery"

  1. Mariners have known since at least the 17th century that the southern ocean is the stormiest area on the planet due to the unimpeded fetch of winds and currents.

  2. “… we use climate models built on the laws of physics and run experiments to test our hypotheses.”

    They imply that the models are based on ‘First Principles,’ and are, therefore, completely objective and quantitative. That is not the case. It is well known that there are no computers powerful enough to handle the energy exchanges in clouds at the same spatial resolution as the rest of the features in the models. Therefore, modelers use what is known as “parameterizations.” ‘Experts’ subjectively describe what they believe is typical gross behavior, and summarize that with average parameters, for a quasi-static state. They may be right and they may be wrong. We don’t know. However, not mentioning parameterization, and stating the models are based on physics, is implying that one can have more confidence in the results than is justified. It is not unlike re-stating Einstein’s famous equation as E = Mc^2 +/-U, where “U” is some large uncertainty. It is still physics; however, it is explicitly less certain than the way Einstein stated it.

    I’m personally uncomfortable with their claim that reducing topography increases storminess. My uneasiness is because mountains lift up humid air to levels that the water vapor is released as snow or rain, and induces turbulence because of the irregular surface. That is, winds can be funneled through passes, and descending air masses become drier and contribute to droughts. However, it is usually the runoff that causes flooding that is a problem for humans.

    An extremely important statement can be found in the actual article:
    “Namely, the Southern Hemisphere is projected to become stormier, whereas Northern Hemisphere storminess changes are MUTED due to a tug of war between tropical and polar climate changes.” This seems to be at odds with the frequent claims that weather is becoming more extreme where most people live.

    I don’t think that we have heard the last of the debate on this topic.

  3. Let’s see, a humongous ice continent with a massive high pressure area sitting over it because the air’s so cold and heavy. That air has gotta go somewhere to areas of low pressure, nature abhorring, etc. Right next door to this continent is an unbroken band of ocean which allow winds to blow west-to-east without interruption. Yep, those storms and their frequency are a real mystery.

  4. “For centuries, sailors who had traveled the world knew that the most powerful storms were located in the Southern Hemisphere.”
    And that was long before AGW man-made CO2 is said to be the cause..the “control knob”. The topography is essentially the same. Certainly before the satellite era began in 1979.

  5. A pity that their model of the world is so inaccurate that it does not even include Aotearoa New Zealand and it’s mountains.

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