The atmospheric circulation response to global warming is important for accurate prediction of climate change on regional scales. For the midlatitudes, shifts in the extratropical jet streams have important consequences for precipitation, blocking, and extreme events. It has proven a challenge, however, to predict. For example, the North Atlantic jet stream plays a vital role in the climate of eastern North America and Europe; in the last intercomparison of state-of-the-art climate models, the models didn’t even agree on the sign of its wintertime response to global warming. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, as we also lack a comprehensive theory for the impact of warming on the midlatitude circulation.
In a recent study, Tan et al. (2019) constructed models of simpler atmospheres to explore the response of the midlatitude jet to global warming. Their idealized atmospheres highlight the difficulty of developing a comprehensive theory for the midlatitude circulation, but also provide pathways to improve models of Earth’s atmosphere. Models of simpler atmospheres allow one to isolate the impact of specific atmospheric processes, and connect theoretical understanding with comprehensive climate prediction systems. Such models can also be used to explore very different atmospheric regimes, from Earth’s past to distant planets.