An unsupervised learning approach to identifying blocking events: the case of European summer

Carl Thomas, Apostolos Voulgarakis, Gerald Lim, Joanna Haigh, Peer Nowack

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6 Citations (Scopus)
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Atmospheric blocking events are mid-latitude weather patterns, which obstruct the usual path of the polar jet streams. They are often associated with heat waves in summer and cold snaps in winter. Despite being central features of mid-latitude synoptic-scale weather, there is no well-defined historical dataset of blocking events. Various blocking indices (BIs) have thus been suggested for automatically identifying blocking events in observational and in climate model data. However, BIs show significant regional and seasonal differences so that several indices are typically applied in combination to ensure scientific robustness. Here, we introduce a new BI using self-organizing maps (SOMs), an unsupervised machine learning approach, and compare its detection skill to some of the most widely applied BIs. To enable this intercomparison, we first create a new ground truth time series classification of European blocking based on expert judgement. We then demonstrate that our method (SOM-BI) has several key advantages over previous BIs because it exploits all of the spatial information provided in the input data and reduces the dependence on arbitrary thresholds. Using ERA5 reanalysis data (1979-2019), we find that the SOM-BI identifies blocking events with a higher precision and recall than other BIs. In particular, SOM-BI already performs well using only around 20 years of training data so that observational records are long enough to train our new method. We present case studies of the 2003 and 2019 European heat waves and highlight that well-defined groups of SOM nodes can be an effective tool to diagnose such weather events, although the domain-based approach can still lead to errors in the identification of certain events in a fashion similar to the other BIs. We further test the red blocking detection skill of SOM-BI depending on the meteorological variable used to study blocking, including geopotential height, sea level pressure and four variables related to potential vorticity, and the 500 hPa geopotential height anomaly field provides the best results with our new approach. We also demonstrate how SOM-BI can be used to identify different types of blocking events and their associated trends. Finally, we evaluate the SOM-BI performance on around 100 years of climate model data from a pre-industrial simulation with the new UK Earth System Model (UKESM1-0-LL). For the model data, all blocking detection methods have lower skill than for the ERA5 reanalysis, but SOM-BI performs noticeably better than the conventional indices. Overall, our results demonstrate the significant potential for unsupervised learning to complement the study of blocking events in both reanalysis and climate modelling contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)581-608
Number of pages28
JournalWeather and Climate Dynamics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2021


  • atmospheric circulation
  • atmospheric dynamics
  • blocking
  • Machine learning
  • unsupervised learning
  • weather
  • self-organizing maps
  • Earth System Model
  • Reanalysis data
  • Europe

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