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An Anatomy of the Cooling of the North Atlantic Ocean in the 1960s and 1970s

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  • 1 Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
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Abstract

In the 1960s and early 1970s, sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean cooled rapidly. There is still considerable uncertainty about the causes of this event, although various mechanisms have been proposed. In this observational study, it is demonstrated that the cooling proceeded in several distinct stages. Cool anomalies initially appeared in the mid-1960s in the Nordic Seas and Gulf Stream extension, before spreading to cover most of the subpolar gyre. Subsequently, cool anomalies spread into the tropical North Atlantic before retreating, in the late 1970s, back to the subpolar gyre. There is strong evidence that changes in atmospheric circulation, linked to a southward shift of the Atlantic ITCZ, played an important role in the event, particularly in the period 1972–76. Theories for the cooling event must account for its distinctive space–time evolution. The authors’ analysis suggests that the most likely drivers were 1) the “Great Salinity Anomaly” of the late 1960s; 2) an earlier warming of the subpolar North Atlantic, which may have led to a slowdown in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation; and 3) an increase in anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions. Determining the relative importance of these factors is a key area for future work.

Denotes Open Access content.

Corresponding author address: Daniel L. R. Hodson, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Earley Gate, P.O. Box 243, Reading RG6 6BB, United Kingdom. E-mail: d.l.r.hodson@reading.ac.uk

Abstract

In the 1960s and early 1970s, sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean cooled rapidly. There is still considerable uncertainty about the causes of this event, although various mechanisms have been proposed. In this observational study, it is demonstrated that the cooling proceeded in several distinct stages. Cool anomalies initially appeared in the mid-1960s in the Nordic Seas and Gulf Stream extension, before spreading to cover most of the subpolar gyre. Subsequently, cool anomalies spread into the tropical North Atlantic before retreating, in the late 1970s, back to the subpolar gyre. There is strong evidence that changes in atmospheric circulation, linked to a southward shift of the Atlantic ITCZ, played an important role in the event, particularly in the period 1972–76. Theories for the cooling event must account for its distinctive space–time evolution. The authors’ analysis suggests that the most likely drivers were 1) the “Great Salinity Anomaly” of the late 1960s; 2) an earlier warming of the subpolar North Atlantic, which may have led to a slowdown in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation; and 3) an increase in anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions. Determining the relative importance of these factors is a key area for future work.

Denotes Open Access content.

Corresponding author address: Daniel L. R. Hodson, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Earley Gate, P.O. Box 243, Reading RG6 6BB, United Kingdom. E-mail: d.l.r.hodson@reading.ac.uk
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