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Kara Hartig
Eli Tziperman
, and
Christopher P. Loughner


Wintertime cold air outbreaks are periods of extreme cold, often persisting for several days and spanning hundreds of kilometers or more. They are commonly associated with intrusions of cold polar air into the midlatitudes, but it is unclear whether the air mass’s initial temperature in the Arctic or its cooling as it travels is the determining factor in producing a cold air outbreak. By calculating air parcel trajectories for a preindustrial climate model scenario, we study the role of the origin and evolution of air masses traveling over sea ice and land and resulting in wintertime cold air outbreaks over central North America. We find that not all Arctic air masses result in a cold air outbreak when advected into the midlatitudes. We compare trajectories that originate in the Arctic and result in cold air outbreaks to those that also originate in the Arctic but lead to median temperatures when advected into the midlatitudes. While about one-third of the midlatitude temperature difference can be accounted for by the initial height and temperature in the Arctic, the other two-thirds are a result of differences in diabatic heating and cooling as the air masses travel. Vertical mixing of cold surface air into the air mass while it travels dominates the diabatic cooling and contributes to the cold events. Air masses leading to cold air outbreaks experience more negative sensible heat flux from the underlying surface, suggesting that preconditioning to establish a cold surface is key to producing cold air outbreaks.

Significance Statement

Wintertime cold air outbreaks can cause temperatures to plummet tens of degrees below freezing over the northern United States, with the potential to damage agriculture, infrastructure, and human health. Accurate predictions under climate change could help mitigate these effects, but there is disagreement over whether cold air outbreaks have declined in line with the already-observed global warming trend or persisted in spite of it. Focusing on cold air outbreaks that originate from the Arctic, we find that there must be additional cooling of the traveling air mass by mixing with very cold surface air as it moves south over North America in order to result in a cold outbreak.

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