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Sept. 22, 2011 Volume 33, No. 5

MU, Russian scientists to study atmospheric blocking


A rare event with serious consequences

Atmospheric blocking is a relatively unknown weather phenomenon responsible for prolonged bouts of extreme conditions, such as the heat wave that led to destructive wildfires in Texas this summer.

To better understand and predict atmospheric blocking patterns, MU researchers are collaborating on a project with the A.M. Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Tony Lupo, professor and chair of the Department of Soil, Environmental and Atmospheric Sciences in the School of Natural Resources, said atmospheric blocking occurs when hot, dry weather gets stuck in one place, leading to extreme heat and drought conditions.

The joint research will focus on developing methods for spotting and predicting atmospheric blocking. Lupo will lead MU’s part of the investigation, while A.M.Obukhov Institute scientists will mine existing scientific literature looking for new clues, create computer prediction models and analyze the influence of anticyclones on blocking events. The research team will also analyze the social and economic impacts that blocking events caused during the 20th century.

By better understanding the effects of blocking and how to identify the weather phenomenon, forecasters and government officials will be able to better prepare communities for extreme weather.

“Blocking events are important because of the effects on people living in affected areas,” Lupo said. “Heat waves caused by blocking killed 15,000 people in Russia last year.”

Atmospheric blocking occurs between 20-40 times each year throughout the world and usually lasts between 8-11 days, Lupo said. Although atmospheric blocking is rare, it can trigger dangerous conditions, such as a 2003 European heat wave that caused 40,000 deaths.

Atmospheric blocking has a major effect on the environment and commerce, as well. In 2004, a blocking event over Alaska decreased precipitation and increased temperatures, melting glaciers and causing fierce forest fires in the interior of the state. Blocking can also have positive effects. In 2004, blocking caused prolonged pleasant temperatures and sunny skies leading to excellent crop yields in Missouri. However, a cold snap in spring 2007 caused by blocking killed budding plants.

Lupo, who has studied atmospheric blocking for more than 20 years and has authored more than 20 scientific papers on the subject, is a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society in London. In 2005, he was named a Fulbright Scholar and spent a summer at the Russian Academy of Sciences working with fellow climate scientists. Lupo is a member of the International Panel of Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.