Articles | Volume 14, issue 23
Research article
09 Dec 2014
Research article |  | 09 Dec 2014

The impact of volcanic aerosol on the Northern Hemisphere stratospheric polar vortex: mechanisms and sensitivity to forcing structure

M. Toohey, K. Krüger, M. Bittner, C. Timmreck, and H. Schmidt

Abstract. Observations and simple theoretical arguments suggest that the Northern Hemisphere (NH) stratospheric polar vortex is stronger in winters following major volcanic eruptions. However, recent studies show that climate models forced by prescribed volcanic aerosol fields fail to reproduce this effect. We investigate the impact of volcanic aerosol forcing on stratospheric dynamics, including the strength of the NH polar vortex, in ensemble simulations with the Max Planck Institute Earth System Model. The model is forced by four different prescribed forcing sets representing the radiative properties of stratospheric aerosol following the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo: two forcing sets are based on observations, and are commonly used in climate model simulations, and two forcing sets are constructed based on coupled aerosol–climate model simulations. For all forcings, we find that simulated temperature and zonal wind anomalies in the NH high latitudes are not directly impacted by anomalous volcanic aerosol heating. Instead, high-latitude effects result from enhancements in stratospheric residual circulation, which in turn result, at least in part, from enhanced stratospheric wave activity. High-latitude effects are therefore much less robust than would be expected if they were the direct result of aerosol heating. Both observation-based forcing sets result in insignificant changes in vortex strength. For the model-based forcing sets, the vortex response is found to be sensitive to the structure of the forcing, with one forcing set leading to significant strengthening of the polar vortex in rough agreement with observation-based expectations. Differences in the dynamical response to the forcing sets imply that reproducing the polar vortex responses to past eruptions, or predicting the response to future eruptions, depends on accurate representation of the space–time structure of the volcanic aerosol forcing.

Short summary
Earth system model simulations are used to investigate the impact of volcanic aerosol forcing on stratospheric dynamics, e.g. the Northern Hemisphere (NH) polar vortex. We find that mechanisms linking aerosol heating and high-latitude dynamics are not as direct as often assumed; high-latitude effects result from changes in stratospheric circulation and related vertical motions. The simulated responses also show evidence of being sensitive to the structure of the volcanic forcing used.
Final-revised paper