A statistical model and extended ensemble integrations of two atmospheric general circulation models (GCMs) are used to simulate the extratropical atmospheric response to forcing by observed SSTs for the years 1980 through 1988. The simulations are compared to observations using the anomaly correlation and root-mean-square error of the 700-hPa height field over a region encompassing the extratropical North Pacific Ocean and most of North America. On average, the statistical model is found to produce considerably better simulations than either numerical model, even when simple statistical corrections are used to remove systematic errors from the numerical model simulations. In the mean, the simulation skill is low, but there are some individual seasons for which all three models produce simulations with good skill.

An approximate upper bound to the simulation skill that could be expected from a GCM ensemble, if the model's response to SST forcing is assumed to be perfect, is computed. This perfect model predictability allows one to make some rough extrapolations about the skill that could be expected if one could greatly improve the mean response of the GCMs without significantly impacting the variance of the ensemble. These perfect model predictability skills are better than the statistical model simulations during the summer, but for the winter, present-day statistical forecasts already have skill that is as high as the upper bound for the GCMs. Simultaneous improvements to the GCM mean response and reduction in the GCM ensemble variance would be required for these GCMs to do significantly better than the statistical model in winter. This does not preclude the possibility that, as is presently the case, a statistical blend of GCM and statistical predictions could produce a simulation better than either alone.

Because of the primitive state of coupled ocean–atmosphere GCMs, the vast majority of seasonal predictions currently produced by GCMs are performed using a two-tiered approach in which SSTs are first predicted and then used to force an atmospheric model; this motivates the examination of the simulation problem. However, it is straightforward to use the statistical model to produce true forecasts by changing its predictors from simultaneous to precursor SSTs. An examination of the decrease in skill of the statistical model when changed from simulation to prediction mode is extrapolated to draw conclusions about the skill to be expected from good coupled GCM predictions.

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*Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, New Jersey.

+National Centers for Environmental Prediction/Climate Prediction Center, Camp Springs, Maryland.