Last updated August 27, 2018

Large Scale Global Circulation Change

Global warming affects regional temperature and humidity structures, and winds respond by changing the intensity and structure of the circulation. Changes that have taken place in recent decades in global atmospheric circulation structure and associated winds are best described as poleward displacements of major wind and pressure systems. Trends associated with these displacements are important signals of climate change. Observed trends include the poleward expansion of the Hadley cell, the poleward shift and increase in mid-latitude westerly winds and contraction of the northern polar vortex.

Background information

What is large scale circulation?

Large-scale atmospheric circulation is driven dynamic processes including wind and pressure systems that determine where it is dry, where it is wet, where it is hot and so on. Changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation are known as "dynamic changes". Dynamic processes are in contrast to thermodynamic processes, which include energy exchanges and phase changes related to land‐atmosphere interactions and convective processes

Differences between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres

Compared to the Northern Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere has a lot more open ocean. Notably, there is a band of water North of Antarctica and below Australia, Africa and South America that is completely uninterrupted by land masses. This open band allows for a strong circumpolar ocean current around Antarctica that is unique to the Southern Hemisphere. The strong circumpolar current creates atmospheric circulation patterns throughout the Southern Hemisphere that are more “zonally symmetric”—a meteorological term that means more consistent across latitudes.


Global trends

The IPCC states, “it is likely that circulation features have moved poleward since the 1970s, involving a widening of the tropical belt, [and] a poleward shift of storm tracks and jet streams.”[1]

Depending on the indicator under investigation, scientists have observed tropical widening by 0.3 to 3.1° latitude per decade since 1979, with a consensus widening of about 1.4°.[2] (Note: Part of the wide range is because the boundary between the tropics and extratropics is not well-defined and depends on the definition of specific indicators of tropics width—such as the position of the jet stream, where surface winds change from westerly to easterly or physical indicators like ozone concentration and humidity.)

Research indicates that extratropical cyclones have shifted toward the poles in both hemispheres over the past 50 years, with further but limited evidence showing a decrease in wind storm frequency at mid-latitudes.[1] Mid-latitude westerly winds have generally increased in both hemispheres.[1]

In the Northern Hemisphere, annual precipitation has likely increased since 1901.[1]