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Causes of the Rapid Warming of the North Atlantic Ocean in the Mid-1990s

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  • 1 NCAS-Climate, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
  • | 2 Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Hamburg, Germany
  • | 3 Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter, United Kingdom
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Abstract

In the mid-1990s, the subpolar gyre of the North Atlantic underwent a remarkable rapid warming, with sea surface temperatures increasing by around 1°C in just 2 yr. This rapid warming followed a prolonged positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) but also coincided with an unusually negative NAO index in the winter of 1995/96. By comparing ocean analyses and carefully designed model experiments, it is shown that this rapid warming can be understood as a delayed response to the prolonged positive phase of the NAO and not simply an instantaneous response to the negative NAO index of 1995/96. Furthermore, it is inferred that the warming was partly caused by a surge and subsequent decline in the meridional overturning circulation and northward heat transport of the Atlantic Ocean. These results provide persuasive evidence of significant oceanic memory on multiannual time scales and are therefore encouraging for the prospects of developing skillful predictions.

Corresponding author address: Jon Robson, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6BB, United Kingdom. E-mail: j.i.robson@reading.ac.uk

Abstract

In the mid-1990s, the subpolar gyre of the North Atlantic underwent a remarkable rapid warming, with sea surface temperatures increasing by around 1°C in just 2 yr. This rapid warming followed a prolonged positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) but also coincided with an unusually negative NAO index in the winter of 1995/96. By comparing ocean analyses and carefully designed model experiments, it is shown that this rapid warming can be understood as a delayed response to the prolonged positive phase of the NAO and not simply an instantaneous response to the negative NAO index of 1995/96. Furthermore, it is inferred that the warming was partly caused by a surge and subsequent decline in the meridional overturning circulation and northward heat transport of the Atlantic Ocean. These results provide persuasive evidence of significant oceanic memory on multiannual time scales and are therefore encouraging for the prospects of developing skillful predictions.

Corresponding author address: Jon Robson, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6BB, United Kingdom. E-mail: j.i.robson@reading.ac.uk
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