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An Echo from the Past to the Future on the Abrupt Seasonal Changes of the General Circulation

It is not unusual that two similar scientific ideas on a particular phenomenon may echo each other across a long time span with the authors being not aware of each other. Such an unintentional duet over history illustrates the amazing beauty of science by clearly showing that progress of science is not necessarily a linear process, but it is often accumulative. A recent paper by Professor LU Jianhua from the Sun Yat-sen University, and Professor Tapio SCHNEIDER from the California Institute of Technology tells of such a story in the field of atmospheric science. 

Carl-Gustaf Rossby, the founder of modern dynamical meteorology, wrote in a short note published in 1951 that “there is […] every reason to expect, during the next few years, an extremely vigorous development of Chinese meteorology and, as a result, many significant realistic contributions from that part of world.” Exemplifying Rossby’s expectation, Tu-cheng Yeh (Duzheng Ye)—one of Rossby’s protégés who returned to China in 1950—together with his colleagues DAO Shih-yen and LI Mei-tsun from Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (then called Institute of Geophysics and Meteorology, Academia Sinica) published “The abrupt change of circulation over the Northern Hemisphere during June and October” in the Rossby Memorial Volume eight years later. Yeh-Dao-Li (1959) viewed the abrupt seasonal change of the general circulation, of which monsoons are a part, as a broad phenomenon, and further conjectured that it was caused by a certain type of “instability” in the atmosphere. They went on to propose a model experiment to test whether such an instability can occur without the inhomogeneities of the underlying boundary conditions (e.g., land-sea contrasts), which have traditionally been taken to be essential for monsoons and abrupt seasonal changes. The advent of numerical general circulation models (GCMs) put the experiments proposed by Yeh-Dao-Li (1959) within reach. Indeed, numerical simulations successfully reproduce abrupt seasonal transitions of the general circulation, including monsoon transitions. However, by including lower-boundary inhomogeneities, these modeling studies were still not the numerical version of the experiment proposed by Yeh-Dao-Li (1959).

Half a century passed after the publication of Yeh-Dao-Li (1959) before GCM experiments corresponding to the laboratory experiment proposed by Yeh-Dao-Li (1959) were conducted (Schneider and Bordoni, 2008; Bordoni and Schneider, 2008), without the authors of these recent studies being aware of Yeh-Dao-Li’s proposal decades earlier. They did indeed find abrupt seasonal transitions of the circulation, without inhomogeneities at the lower boundary. The paper in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences summarizes the circulation feedbacks that lead to the abrupt seasonal transitions found in the model experiments without lower-boundary inhomogeneities. It also emphasizes the work that still remains to be done to establish a comprehensive theoretical framework of seasonal transitions and to answer open questions such as:

(1) How does the strength and structure of a Hadley cell depend on external factors such as the solar declination angle?

(2) What controls when and how rapidly the circulation undergoes seasonal transitions?

(3) How and to what extent do surface inhomogeneities such as land-sea contrasts modulate the internal rearrangement of the atmospheric circulation during the seasonal transitions?

(4) Can the seasonal transitions be understood as an instability of the circulation as forcing parameters move through a critical region, as originally conjectured by Yeh-Dao-Li (1959)?

The cover of the special issue commemorating the centenary of YE Duzheng's birth (image by Advances in Atmospheric Sciences)

The paper appears in a Special Issue of Advances in Atmospheric Sciences arising from last year's symposium in Nanjing organized by the Institute of Atmospheric Phyics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, where Professor Duzheng Yeh had worked more than 60 years before he passed away in 2013, to commemorate his lifetime achievement. Prof. Duzheng Ye was well known for his manifold contributions to the theory and observation of the general circulation of the atmosphere. He was awarded the 48th IMO (International Meteorological Organization) Prize in 2003 and the Highest Science and Technology Awards of China in 2005.

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