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Amy H. Butler, Dian J. Seidel, Steven C. Hardiman, Neal Butchart, Thomas Birner, and Aaron Match


Sudden stratospheric warmings (SSWs) are large, rapid temperature rises in the winter polar stratosphere, occurring predominantly in the Northern Hemisphere. Major SSWs are also associated with a reversal of the climatological westerly zonal-mean zonal winds. Circulation anomalies associated with SSWs can descend into the troposphere with substantial surface weather impacts, such as wintertime extreme cold air outbreaks. After their discovery in 1952, SSWs were classified by the World Meteorological Organization. An examination of literature suggests that a single, original reference for an exact definition of SSWs is elusive, but in many references a definition involves the reversal of the meridional temperature gradient and, for major warmings, the reversal of the zonal circulation poleward of 60° latitude at 10 hPa.

Though versions of this definition are still commonly used to detect SSWs, the details of the definition and its implementation remain ambiguous. In addition, other SSW definitions have been used in the last few decades, resulting in inconsistent classification of SSW events. We seek to answer the questions: How has the SSW definition changed, and how sensitive is the detection of SSWs to the definition used? For what kind of analysis is a “standard” definition useful? We argue that a standard SSW definition is necessary for maintaining a consistent and robust metric to assess polar stratospheric wintertime variability in climate models and other statistical applications. To provide a basis for, and to encourage participation in, a communitywide discussion currently underway, we explore what criteria are important for a standard definition and propose possible ways to update the definition.

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