Theses Doctoral

Impacts of anthropogenic aerosols on regional climate: extreme events, stagnation, and the United States warming hole

Mascioli, Nora Rose

Extreme temperatures, heat waves, heavy rainfall events, drought, and extreme air pollution events have adverse effects on human health, infrastructure, agriculture and economies. The frequency, magnitude and duration of these events are expected to change in the future in response to increasing greenhouse gases and decreasing aerosols, but future climate projections are uncertain. A significant portion of this uncertainty arises from uncertainty in the effects of aerosol forcing: to what extent were the effects from greenhouse gases masked by aerosol forcing over the historical observational period, and how much will decreases in aerosol forcing influence regional and global climate over the remainder of the 21st century?
The observed frequency and intensity of extreme heat and precipitation events have increased in the U.S. over the latter half of the 20th century. Using aerosol only (AER) and greenhouse gas only (GHG) simulations from 1860 to 2005 in the GFDL CM3 chemistry-climate model, I parse apart the competing influences of aerosols and greenhouse gases on these extreme events. I find that small changes in extremes in the “all forcing” simulations reflect cancellations between the effects of increasing anthropogenic aerosols and greenhouse gases. In AER, extreme high temperatures and the number of days with temperatures above the 90th percentile decline over most of the U.S., while in GHG high temperature extremes increase over most of the U.S. The spatial response patterns in AER and GHG are significantly anti-correlated, suggesting a preferred regional mode of response that is largely independent of the type of forcing. Extreme precipitation over the eastern U.S. decreases in AER, particularly in winter, and increases over the eastern and central U.S. in GHG, particularly in spring. Over the 21st century under the RCP8.5 emissions scenario, the patterns of extreme temperature and precipitation change associated with greenhouse gas forcing dominate.
The temperature response pattern in AER and GHG is characterized by strong responses over the western U.S. and weak or opposite signed responses over the southeast U.S., raising the question of whether the observed U.S. “warming hole” could have a forced component. To address this question, I systematically examine observed seasonal temperature trends over all time periods of at least 10 years during 1901-2015. In the northeast and southern U.S., significant summertime cooling occurs from the early 1950s to the mid 1970s, which I partially attribute to increasing anthropogenic aerosol emissions (median fraction of the observed temperature trends explained is 0.69 and 0.17, respectively). In winter, the northeast and southern U.S. cool significantly from the early 1950s to the early 1990s, which I attribute to long-term phase changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Rather than being a single phenomenon stemming from a single cause, both the warming hole and its dominant drivers vary by season, region, and time period.
Finally, I examine historical and projected future changes in atmospheric stagnation. Stagnation, which is characterized by weak winds and an absence of precipitation, is a meteorological contributor to heat waves, extreme pollution, and drought. Using CM3, I show that regional stagnation trends over the historical period (1860-2005) are driven by changes in anthropogenic aerosol emissions, rather than rising greenhouse gases. In the northeastern and central United States, aerosol-induced changes in surface and upper level winds produce significant decreases in the number of stagnant summer days, while decreasing precipitation in the southeast US increases the number of stagnant summer days. Outside of the U.S., significant drying over eastern China in response to rising aerosol emissions contributed to increased stagnation during 1860-2005. Additionally, this region was found to be particularly sensitive to changes in local aerosol emissions, indicating that decreasing Chinese emissions in efforts to improve air quality will also decrease stagnation. In Europe, I find a dipole response pattern during the historical period wherein stagnation decreases over southern Europe and increases over northern Europe in response to global increases in aerosol emissions. In the future, declining aerosol emissions will likely lead to a reversal of the historical stagnation trends, with increasing greenhouse gases again playing a secondary role.
Aerosols have a significant effect on a number of societally important extreme events, including heat waves, intense rainfall events, drought, and stagnation. Further, uncertainty in the strength of aerosol masking of historical greenhouse gas forcing is a significant source of spread in future climate projections. Quantifying these aerosol effects is therefore critical for our ability to accurately project and prepare for future changes in extreme events.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Fiore, Arlene M.
Previdi, Michael
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 26, 2018