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Rowan T. Sutton

Abstract

For decision-makers, climate change is a problem in risk assessment and risk management. It is, therefore, surprising that the needs and lessons of risk assessment have not featured more centrally in the consideration of priorities for physical climate science research, or in the Working Group I contributions to the major assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This article considers the reasons, which include a widespread view that the job of physical climate science is to provide predictions and projections—with a focus on likelihood rather than risk—and that risk assessment is a job for others. This view, it is argued, is incorrect. There is an urgent need for physical climate science to take the needs of risk assessment much more seriously. The challenge of meeting this need has important implications for priorities in climate research, climate modeling, and climate assessments.

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Buwen Dong and Rowan T. Sutton

Abstract

Interdecadal variability of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) is studied in the third version of the Hadley Centre global coupled atmosphere–ocean sea-ice general circulation model (HadCM3). A diagnostic approach is used to elucidate the mechanism that governs the variability and its impacts on climate. An irregular and heavily damped THC oscillation with a period around 25 yr is identified. The oscillation appears to be forced by the atmosphere but the ocean is responsible for setting the time scale. Following a minimum in the THC, the mechanism for phase reversal involves the accumulation of cold water in the subpolar gyre, leading to an acceleration of the gyre circulation and the North Atlantic Current. This acceleration increases the transport of saline waters into the regions of active deep convection, raising the upper-ocean density and leading, after adjustment, to acceleration of the THC. The atmosphere stimulates this THC variability in two ways: 1) by forcing the subpolar gyre through (North Atlantic Oscillation) NAO-related wind stress curl and heat flux anomalies; and 2) by direct forcing of the region of active deep convection, also through wind stress curl and heat flux anomalies. The latter is not closely related to the NAO. The mechanism for phase reversal has many similarities to that found in a previous study with a much lower resolution coupled model, suggesting that this mechanism may be quite robust. However the time scale, and details of the atmospheric forcing, differ.

The THC variability in HadCM3 has significant impacts on the atmosphere not just in the Atlantic region but also more widely, throughout the global Tropics. The mechanism involves modulation by the THC of the cross-equator SST gradient in the tropical Atlantic. The SST anomalies induce a displacement of the ITCZ in the Atlantic basin with knock-on effects over the other ocean basins. These findings highlight the potential importance of the Atlantic THC as a cause of interdecadal climate variability on a global scale.

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Buwen Dong and Rowan T. Sutton

Abstract

The variability of the westerly jet stream and storm track is crucial for summer weather and climate in the North Atlantic/European region. Observations for recent decades show notable trends in the summer jet from the 1970s to 2010s, characterized by an equatorward migration over the North Atlantic accompanied by a poleward migration and weakening of the Mediterranean jet over Europe. These changes in atmospheric circulation were associated with more cyclonic storms traveling across the United Kingdom into northern Europe, and fewer over the Mediterranean, leading to wet summers in northern Europe and dry summers in southern Europe. In this study we investigate the potential drivers and processes that may have been responsible for the observed changes in summer atmospheric circulation, with a particular focus on the role of anthropogenic aerosols (AA). We conduct attribution experiments with an atmospheric general circulation model (AGCM) forced with observed changes in sea surface temperatures/sea ice extent (SST/SIE), greenhouse gas concentrations, and AA precursor emissions. Comparison between the model results and observations strongly suggests that fast responses to AA changes were likely the primary driver of the observed poleward migration and weakening of the Mediterranean jet, with changes in SST/SIE playing a secondary role. The simulated response shows good agreement with the observed changes in both magnitude and vertical structure, which suggests that common mechanisms, involving aerosol–radiation and aerosol–cloud interactions, are responsible. By contrast, changes in the North Atlantic jet are influenced in the model experiments by changes in both Atlantic SST/SIE (which may themselves have been influenced by changes in AA) and fast responses to AA. In this case, however, there are significant differences between the model response and the observed changes; we argue that these differences may be explained by biases in the model climatology.

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Buwen Dong and Rowan T. Sutton

Abstract

A coupled ocean–atmosphere general circulation model is used to investigate the modulation of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) variability due to a weakened Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC). The THC weakening is induced by freshwater perturbations in the North Atlantic, and leads to a well-known sea surface temperature dipole and a southward shift of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) in the tropical Atlantic. Through atmospheric teleconnections and local coupled air–sea feedbacks, a meridionally asymmetric mean state change is generated in the eastern equatorial Pacific, corresponding to a weakened annual cycle, and westerly anomalies develop over the central Pacific. The westerly anomalies are associated with anomalous warming of SST, causing an eastward extension of the west Pacific warm pool particularly in August–February, and enhanced precipitation. These and other changes in the mean state lead in turn to an eastward shift of the zonal wind anomalies associated with El Niño events, and a significant increase in ENSO variability.

In response to a 1-Sv (1 Sv ≡ 106 m3 s−1) freshwater input in the North Atlantic, the THC slows down rapidly and it weakens by 86% over years 50–100. The Niño-3 index standard deviation increases by 36% during the first 100-yr simulation relative to the control simulation. Further analysis indicates that the weakened THC not only leads to a stronger ENSO variability, but also leads to a stronger asymmetry between El Niño and La Niña events. This study suggests a role for an atmospheric bridge that rapidly conveys the influence of the Atlantic Ocean to the tropical Pacific and indicates that fluctuations of the THC can mediate not only mean climate globally but also modulate interannual variability. The results may contribute to understanding both the multidecadal variability of ENSO activity during the twentieth century and longer time-scale variability of ENSO, as suggested by some paleoclimate records.

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Rowan T. Sutton and Daniel L. R. Hodson

Abstract

Using experiments with an atmospheric general circulation model, the climate impacts of a basin-scale warming or cooling of the North Atlantic Ocean are investigated. Multidecadal fluctuations with this pattern were observed during the twentieth century, and similar variations—but with larger amplitude—are believed to have occurred in the more distant past. It is found that in all seasons the response to warming the North Atlantic is strongest, in the sense of highest signal-to-noise ratio, in the Tropics. However there is a large seasonal cycle in the climate impacts. The strongest response is found in boreal summer and is associated with suppressed precipitation and elevated temperatures over the lower-latitude parts of North and South America. In August–September–October there is a significant reduction in the vertical shear in the main development region for Atlantic hurricanes. In winter and spring, temperature anomalies over land in the extratropics are governed by dynamical changes in circulation rather than simply reflecting a thermodynamic response to the warming or cooling of the ocean.

The tropical climate response is primarily forced by the tropical SST anomalies, and the major features are in line with simple models of the tropical circulation response to diabatic heating anomalies. The extratropical climate response is influenced both by tropical and higher-latitude SST anomalies and exhibits nonlinear sensitivity to the sign of the SST forcing. Comparisons with multidecadal changes in sea level pressure observed in the twentieth century support the conclusion that the impact of North Atlantic SST change is most important in summer, but also suggest a significant influence in lower latitudes in autumn and winter.

Significant climate impacts are not restricted to the Atlantic basin, implying that the Atlantic Ocean could be an important driver of global decadal variability. The strongest remote impacts are found to occur in the tropical Pacific region in June–August and September–November. Surface anomalies in this region have the potential to excite coupled ocean–atmosphere feedbacks, which are likely to play an important role in shaping the ultimate climate response.

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Buwen Dong, Rowan T. Sutton, Len Shaffrey, and Nicholas P. Klingaman

Abstract

There is still no consensus about the best methodology for attributing observed changes in climate or climate events. One widely used approach relies on experiments in which the time periods of interest are simulated using an atmospheric general circulation model (AGCM) forced by prescribed sea surface temperatures (SSTs), with and without estimated anthropogenic influences. A potential limitation of such experiments is the lack of explicit atmosphere–ocean coupling; therefore a key question is whether the attribution statements derived from such studies are in fact robust. In this research the authors have carried out climate model experiments to test attribution conclusions in a situation where the answer is known—a so-called perfect model approach. The study involves comparing attribution conclusions for decadal changes derived from experiments with a coupled climate model (specifically an AGCM coupled to an ocean mixed-layer model) with conclusions derived from parallel experiments with the same AGCM forced by SSTs derived from the coupled model simulations. Results indicate that attribution conclusions for surface air temperature changes derived from AGCM experiments are generally robust and not sensitive to air–sea coupling. However, changes in seasonal mean and extreme precipitations, and circulation in some regions, show large sensitivity to air–sea coupling, notably in the summer monsoons over East Asia and Australia. Comparison with observed changes indicates that the coupled simulations generally agree better with observations. These results demonstrate that the AGCM-based attribution method has limitations and may lead to erroneous attribution conclusions in some regions for local circulation and mean and extreme precipitation. The coupled mixed-layer model used in this study offers an alternative and, in some respects, superior tool for attribution studies.

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Alan M. Iwi, Leon Hermanson, Keith Haines, and Rowan T. Sutton

Abstract

This study examines the sensitivity of the climate system to volcanic aerosol forcing in the third climate configuration of the Met Office Unified Model (HadCM3). The main test case was based on the 1880s when there were several volcanic eruptions, the well-known Krakatau being the largest. These eruptions increased atmospheric aerosol concentrations and induced a period of global cooling surface temperatures. In this study, an ensemble of HadCM3 has been integrated with the standard set of radiative forcings and aerosols from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report simulations, from 1860 to present. A second ensemble removes the volcanic aerosols from 1880 to 1899. The all-forcings ensemble shows an attributable 1.2-Sv (1 Sv ≡ 106 m3 s−1) increase in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) at 45°N—with a 0.04-PW increase in meridional heat transport at 40°N and increased northern Atlantic SSTs—starting around 1894, approximately 11 years after the first eruption, and lasting a further 10 years at least. The mechanisms responsible are traced to the Arctic, with suppression of the global water cycle (high-latitude precipitation), which leads to an increase in upper-level Arctic and Greenland Sea salinities. This then leads to increased convection in the Greenland–Iceland–Norwegian (GIN) Seas, enhanced Denmark Strait overflows, and AMOC changes with density anomalies traceable southward along the western Atlantic boundary. The authors investigate whether a similar response to the Pinatubo eruption in 1991 could still be ongoing, but do not find strong evidence.

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Buwen Dong, Rowan T. Sutton, Ellie Highwood, and Laura Wilcox

Abstract

In this study, the atmospheric component of a state-of-the-art climate model [the Hadley Centre Global Environment Model, version 2–Earth System (HadGEM2-ES)] has been used to investigate the impacts of regional anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions on boreal summer Sahel rainfall. The study focuses on the transient response of the West African monsoon (WAM) to a sudden change in regional anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions, including land surface feedbacks but without sea surface temperature (SST) feedbacks. The response occurs in two distinct phases: 1) fast adjustment of the atmosphere on a time scale of days to weeks (up to 3 weeks) through aerosol–radiation and aerosol–cloud interactions with weak hydrological cycle changes and surface feedbacks and 2) adjustment of the atmosphere and land surface with significant local hydrological cycle changes and changes in atmospheric circulation (beyond 3 weeks).

European emissions lead to an increase in shortwave (SW) scattering by increased sulfate burden, leading to a decrease in surface downward SW radiation that causes surface cooling over North Africa, a weakening of the Saharan heat low and WAM, and a decrease in Sahel precipitation. In contrast, Asian emissions lead to very little change in sulfate burden over North Africa, but they induce an adjustment of the Walker circulation, which leads again to a weakening of the WAM and a decrease in Sahel precipitation. The responses to European and Asian emissions during the second phase exhibit similar large-scale patterns of anomalous atmospheric circulation and hydrological variables, suggesting a preferred response. The results support the idea that sulfate aerosol emissions contributed to the observed decline in Sahel precipitation in the second half of the twentieth century.

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Ruth E. Petrie, Len C. Shaffrey, and Rowan T. Sutton

Abstract

The atmospheric response to an idealized decline in Arctic sea ice is investigated in a novel fully coupled climate model experiment. In this experiment two ensembles of single-year model integrations are performed starting on 1 April, the approximate start of the ice melt season. By perturbing the initial conditions of sea ice thickness (SIT), declines in both sea ice concentration and SIT, which result in sea ice distributions that are similar to the recent sea ice minima of 2007 and 2012, are induced. In the ice loss regions there are strong (~3 K) local increases in sea surface temperature (SST); additionally, there are remote increases in SST in the central North Pacific and subpolar gyre in the North Atlantic. Over the central Arctic there are increases in surface air temperature (SAT) of ~8 K due to increases in ocean–atmosphere heat fluxes. There are increases in SAT over continental North America that are in good agreement with recent changes as seen by reanalysis data. It is estimated that up to two-thirds of the observed increase in SAT in this region could be related to Arctic sea ice loss. In early summer there is a significant but weak atmospheric circulation response that projects onto the summer North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). In early summer and early autumn there is an equatorward shift of the eddy-driven jet over the North Atlantic as a result of a reduction in the meridional temperature gradients. In winter there is no projection onto a particular phase of the NAO.

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Daniel L. R. Hodson, Jon I. Robson, and Rowan T. Sutton

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.

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