Ocean–Atmosphere Dynamical Coupling Fundamental to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation

Robert C. J. Wills Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

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Kyle C. Armour Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

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David S. Battisti Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

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Dennis L. Hartmann Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

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Abstract

The North Atlantic has shown large multidecadal temperature shifts during the twentieth century. There is ongoing debate about whether this variability arises primarily through the influence of atmospheric internal variability, through changes in ocean circulation, or as a response to anthropogenic forcing. This study isolates the mechanisms driving Atlantic sea surface temperature variability on multidecadal time scales by using low-frequency component analysis (LFCA) to separate the influences of high-frequency variability, multidecadal variability, and long-term global warming. This analysis objectively identifies the North Atlantic subpolar gyre as the dominant region of Atlantic multidecadal variability. In unforced control runs of coupled climate models, warm subpolar temperatures are associated with a strengthened Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and anomalous local heat fluxes from the ocean into the atmosphere. Atmospheric variability plays a role in the intensification and subsequent weakening of ocean overturning and helps to communicate warming into the tropical Atlantic. These findings suggest that dynamical coupling between atmospheric and oceanic circulations is fundamental to the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (AMO) and motivate approaching decadal prediction with a focus on ocean circulation.

© 2018 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Robert C. Jnglin Wills, rcwills@uw.edu

Abstract

The North Atlantic has shown large multidecadal temperature shifts during the twentieth century. There is ongoing debate about whether this variability arises primarily through the influence of atmospheric internal variability, through changes in ocean circulation, or as a response to anthropogenic forcing. This study isolates the mechanisms driving Atlantic sea surface temperature variability on multidecadal time scales by using low-frequency component analysis (LFCA) to separate the influences of high-frequency variability, multidecadal variability, and long-term global warming. This analysis objectively identifies the North Atlantic subpolar gyre as the dominant region of Atlantic multidecadal variability. In unforced control runs of coupled climate models, warm subpolar temperatures are associated with a strengthened Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and anomalous local heat fluxes from the ocean into the atmosphere. Atmospheric variability plays a role in the intensification and subsequent weakening of ocean overturning and helps to communicate warming into the tropical Atlantic. These findings suggest that dynamical coupling between atmospheric and oceanic circulations is fundamental to the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (AMO) and motivate approaching decadal prediction with a focus on ocean circulation.

© 2018 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Robert C. Jnglin Wills, rcwills@uw.edu
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