How Gulf-Stream SST-fronts influence Atlantic winter storms

Results from a downscaling experiment with HARMONIE to the role of modified latent heat fluxes and low-level baroclinicity
  • Hylke de VriesEmail author
  • Sebastian Scher
  • Rein Haarsma
  • Sybren Drijfhout
  • Aarnout van Delden


The strong horizontal gradients in sea surface temperature (SST) of the Atlantic Gulf Stream exert a detectable influence on extratropical cyclones propagating across the region. This is shown in a sensitivity experiment where 24 winter storms taken from ERA-Interim are simulated with HARMONIE at 10-km resolution. Each storm is simulated twice. First, using observed SST (REF). In the second simulation a smoothed SST is offered (SMTH), while lateral and upper-level boundary conditions are unmodified. Each storm pair propagates approximately along the same track, however their intensities (as measured by maximal near-surface wind speed or 850-hPa relative vorticity) differ up to ± 25%. A 30-member ensemble created for one of the storms shows that on a single-storm level the response is systematic rather than random. To explain the broad response in storm strength, we show that the SST-adjustment modifies two environmental parameters: surface latent heat flux (LHF) and low-level baroclinicity (B). LHF influences storms by modifying diabatic heating and boundary-layer processes such as vertical mixing. The position of each storm’s track relative to the SST-front is important. South of the SST-front the smoothing leads to lower SST, reduced LHF and storms with generally weaker maximum near-surface winds. North of the SST-front the increased LHF tend to enhance the winds, but the accompanying changes in baroclinicity are not necessarily favourable. Together these mechanisms explain up to 80% of the variability in the near-surface maximal wind speed change. Because the mechanisms are less effective in explaining more dynamics-oriented indicators like 850 hPa relative vorticity, we hypothesise that part of the wind-speed change is related to adjustment of the boundary-layer processes in response to the LHF and B changes.


Atlantic winter storms Gulf Stream SST-fronts 



This work has been funded by the PRIMAVERA project under Grant agreement 641727 in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research program. Author contribution statement: SS developed the initial ideas leading to this study; HdV and SS did the simulations and analyzed the data; HdV drafted the manuscript and all authors discussed the results and helped in improving the manuscript. The authors thank dr. James Booth, the reviewers and the editor for their constructive comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Royal Netherlands Meteorological InstituteDe BiltThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Meteorological Institute and Bolin Centre for Climate ResearchStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  3. 3.University of SouthamptonSouthamptonUK
  4. 4.IMAUUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands

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