Letter

The tropical Pacific as a key pacemaker of the variable rates of global warming

Received:
Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

Global mean surface temperature change over the past 120 years resembles a rising staircase1,2: the overall warming trend was interrupted by the mid-twentieth-century big hiatus and the warming slowdown2,3,4,5,6,7,8 since about 1998. The Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation9,10 has been implicated in modulations of global mean surface temperatures6,11, but which part of the mode drives the variability in warming rates is unclear. Here we present a successful simulation of the global warming staircase since 1900 with a global ocean–atmosphere coupled model where tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures are forced to follow the observed evolution. Without prescribed tropical Pacific variability, the same model, on average, produces a continual warming trend that accelerates after the 1960s. We identify four events where the tropical Pacific decadal cooling markedly slowed down the warming trend. Matching the observed spatial and seasonal fingerprints we identify the tropical Pacific as a key pacemaker of the warming staircase, with radiative forcing driving the overall warming trend. Specifically, tropical Pacific variability amplifies the first warming epoch of the 1910s–1940s and determines the timing when the big hiatus starts and ends. Our method of removing internal variability from the observed record can be used for real-time monitoring of anthropogenic warming.

  • Subscribe to Nature Geoscience for full access:

    $59

    Subscribe

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.

References

  1. 1.

    Pacemakers of warming. Nature Geosci. 8, 87–89 (2015).

  2. 2.

    Has there been a hiatus? Science 349, 691–692 (2015).

  3. 3.

    , , , & Model-based evidence of deep-ocean heat uptake during surface-temperature hiatus periods. Nature Clim. Change 1, 360–364 (2011).

  4. 4.

    & Recent global-warming hiatus tied to equatorial Pacific surface cooling. Nature 501, 403–407 (2013).

  5. 5.

    et al. Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus. Nature Clim. Change 4, 222–227 (2014).

  6. 6.

    , , & Decadal modulation of global surface temperature by internal climate variability. Nature Clim. Change 5, 555–559 (2015).

  7. 7.

    , & Reconciling warming trends. Nature Geosci. 7, 158–160 (2014).

  8. 8.

    et al. Volcanic contribution to decadal changes in tropospheric temperature. Nature Geosci. 7, 185–189 (2014).

  9. 9.

    , & ENSO-like interdecadal variability: 1900–93. J. Clim. 10, 1004–1020 (1997).

  10. 10.

    , , , & Inter-decadal modulation of the impact of ENSO on Australia. Clim. Dynam. 15, 319–324 (1999).

  11. 11.

    , & Drivers of decadal hiatus periods in the 20th and 21st centuries. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 5978–5986 (2014).

  12. 12.

    et al. Making sense of the early-2000s global warming slowdown. Nature Clim. Change 6, 224–228 (2016).

  13. 13.

    , & Climate model simulations of the observed early-2000s hiatus of global warming. Nature Clim. Change 4, 898–902 (2014).

  14. 14.

    , , & Improvements to NOAA’s historical merged land-ocean surface temperature analysis (1880–2006). J. Clim. 21, 2283–2296 (2008).

  15. 15.

    , , & A large discontinuity in the mid-twentieth century in observed global-mean surface temperature. Nature 453, 646–649 (2008).

  16. 16.

    et al. Extended reconstructed sea surface temperature version 4 (ERSST.v4). Part I: upgrades and intercomparisons. J. Clim. 28, 911–930 (2015).

  17. 17.

    Early twentieth-century warming. Nature Geosci. 2, 735–736 (2009).

  18. 18.

    et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 867–952 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).

  19. 19.

    , & The influence of anthropogenic aerosol on multi-decadal variations of historical global climate. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 024033 (2013).

  20. 20.

    , & The mid-1970s climate shift in the Pacific and the relative roles of forced versus inherent decadal variability. J. Clim. 22, 780–792 (2009).

  21. 21.

    et al. Early twentieth-century warming linked to tropical Pacific wind strength. Nature Geosci. 8, 117–121 (2015).

  22. 22.

    & The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth’s temperature to radiation changes. Nature Geosci. 1, 735–743 (2008).

  23. 23.

    et al. Energy budget constraints on climate response. Nature Geosci. 6, 413–414 (2013).

  24. 24.

    , , & Identifying signatures of natural climate variability in time series of global-mean surface temperature: methodology and insights. J. Clim. 22, 6120–6141 (2009).

  25. 25.

    , & Comparing variability and trends in observed and modelled global-mean surface temperature. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L16802 (2010).

  26. 26.

    & Ditch the 2 °C warming goal. Nature 514, 30–31 (2014).

  27. 27.

    et al. The decadal climate prediction project. Geosci. Model Dev. Discuss. (2016).

  28. 28.

    , , & Quantifying uncertainties in global and regional temperature change using an ensemble of observational estimates: the HadCRUT4 data set. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D08101 (2012).

  29. 29.

    , , & Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys. 48, RG4004 (2010).

  30. 30.

    et al. Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus. Science 348, 1469–1472 (2015).

  31. 31.

    et al. ERA-20CM: A Twentieth Century Atmospheric Model Ensemble ERA Report Series 16 (ECMWF, 2013);

  32. 32.

    et al. GFDL’s CM2 global coupled climate models. Part I: formulation and simulation characteristics. J. Clim. 19, 643–674 (2006).

  33. 33.

    , , , & Slowdown of the Walker circulation driven by tropical Indo-Pacific warming. Nature 491, 439–443 (2012).

  34. 34.

    , , & Effects of volcanism on tropical variability. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 6024–6033 (2015).

  35. 35.

    et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 741–866 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015).

  36. 36.

    Estimates of the regression coefficient based on Kendall’s tau. J. Am. Stat. Assoc. 63, 1379–1389 (1968).

Download references

Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model developers for making the coupled model version 2.1 available. Y.K. is supported by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology through Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists 15H05466 and the Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ArCS) Project, and by the Japanese Ministry of Environment through the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund 2-1503. S.-P.X. is supported by the US National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Tokyo, 4-6-1 Komaba, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-8904, Japan

    • Yu Kosaka
  2. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive MC 0206, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • Shang-Ping Xie

Authors

  1. Search for Yu Kosaka in:

  2. Search for Shang-Ping Xie in:

Contributions

Y.K. and S.-P.X. designed the study and wrote the paper. Y.K. performed the model experiments and analysis in consultation with S.-P.X.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yu Kosaka or Shang-Ping Xie.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information