Published On: Mon, Sep 5th, 2016

NASA: A Strange Thing Happened in The Stratosphere

A 60-year pattern in the stratosphere changes up

A predictable pattern of winds in the stratosphere recently changed in a way scientists had not seen in more than 60 years of record-keeping. NASA


For the past 60 years NASA Scientists have been observing a pattern in the stratosphere called the “quasi-biennial oscillation”or QBO. A strong wind blow in a continuous circuit around Earth’s tropical stratosphere. The pattern never changed – until late 2015.

A disruption to the wind pattern did not have any immediate impact on weather or climate as we experience it on Earth’s surface. But it does raise interesting questions for the NASA scientists: If a pattern holds for six decades and then suddenly changes, what caused that to happen? Will it happen again? What effects might it have?

“The quasi-biennial oscillation is the stratosphere’s Old Faithful, ” said Paul Newman, Chief Scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. “If Old Faithful stopped for a day, you’d begin to wonder about what was happening under the ground.”

Winds in the tropical stratosphere, an atmospheric layer that extends from about up to 48 km (10 to 30 miles) above Earth’s equator, circulate the planet in alternating easterly and westerly directions over roughly a two-year period. Westerly winds develop at the top of the stratosphere, and gradually descend to the bottom, about 10 miles above the surface while at the same time being replaced by a layer of easterly winds above them. In turn, the easterlies descend and are replaced by westerlies.

This pattern repeats every 28 months.



In the 1960s scientists coined it the “quasi-biennial oscillation.” The record of these measurements, made by weather balloons released in the tropics at various points around the globe, dates to 1953.

The pattern never changed. As the year 2015 came to a close, scientists found that the amount of ozone at the Equator changes about 10 percent between the peak phases of the easterlies and westerlies. The regular pattern held that weaker easterly winds would soon replace them. But then the westerlies appeared to move upwards and block the downward movement of the easterlies. This new pattern held for nearly half a year, and by July 2016 the old regime seemed to resume.

“It’s really interesting when nature throws us a curveball, ” Newman said.

The QBO has a wide influence on stratospheric conditions. The amount of ozone at the equator changes by 10 percent between the peaks of the easterly and westerly phases, while the oscillation also has an impact on levels of polar ozone depletion.

With this disruption now documented, NASA Scientists are studying both its causes and potential implications. They have two theories. One theory suggests the change in circulation was a side-effect of the strong El Nino in 2015-16. The second theory,  Newman said,  to figure out if the event was a “black swan, ” a once-in-a-generation event, or a “canary in the coal mine, ” a shift with unforeseen circumstances, caused by climate change.



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