Data-Driven Transition Path Analysis Yields a Statistical Understanding of Sudden Stratospheric Warming Events in an Idealized Model

Justin Finkel, Robert J. Webber, Edwin P. Gerber, Dorian S. Abbot, Jonathan Weare

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Atmospheric regime transitions are highly impactful as drivers of extreme weather events, but pose two formidable modeling challenges: predicting the next event (weather forecasting) and characterizing the statistics of events of a given severity (the risk climatology). Each event has a different duration and spatial structure, making it hard to define an objective “average event.” We argue here that transition path theory (TPT), a stochastic process framework, is an appropriate tool for the task. We demonstrate TPT’s capacities on a wave–mean flow model of sudden stratospheric warmings (SSWs) developed by Holton and Mass, which is idealized enough for transparent TPT analysis but complex enough to demonstrate computational scalability. Whereas a recent article (Finkel et al. 2021) studied near-term SSW predictability, the present article uses TPT to link predictability to long-term SSW frequency. This requires not only forecasting forward in time from an initial condition, but also backward in time to assess the probability of the initial conditions themselves. TPT enables one to condition the dynamics on the regime transition occurring, and thus visualize its physical drivers with a vector field called the reactive current. The reactive current shows that before an SSW, dissipation and stochastic forcing drive a slow decay of vortex strength at lower altitudes. The response of upper-level winds is late and sudden, occurring only after the transition is almost complete from a probabilistic point of view. This case study demonstrates that TPT quantities, visualized in a space of physically meaningful variables, can help one understand the dynamics of regime transitions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)519-534
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • Atmosphere
  • Clustering
  • Probability forecasts/models/distribution
  • Risk assessment
  • Stochastic models
  • Subseasonal variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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