Letters to Nature

Nature 388, 563-567 (7 August 1997) | ; Received 12 May 1997; Accepted 17 June 1997

Decadal predictability of North Atlantic sea surface temperature and climate

R. T. Sutton1,2 and M. R. Allen1,3

  1. Atmospheric Oceanic and Planetary Physics, Clarendon Laboratory, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PU, UK
  2. Centre for Global Atmospheric Modelling, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, PO Box 243, Earley Gate, Reading RG6 6BB, UK
  3. Space Science Department, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Chilton OX11 0QX, UK

Correspondence to: R. T. Sutton1,2 Correspondence should be addressed to R.T.S. (e-mail: Email: atmrts@atm.ox.ac.uk).

The weather at middle latitudes is largely unpredictable more than a week or so in advance, whereas fluctuations in the ocean may be predictable over much longer timescales. If decadal fluctuations in North Atlantic sea surface temperature1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 could be predicted, it might be possible to exploit their influence on the atmosphere7, 8, 9, 10 to forecast decadal fluctuations in climate11. Here we report analyses of shipboard observations that indicate significant decadal predictability of North Atlantic sea surface temperature, arising from the advective propagation of sea-surface-temperature anomalies4 and the existence of a regular period of 12–14 years in the propagating signals. The same timescale can be identified in a dipole-like pattern of North Atlantic sea-level pressure variability1,7,12. We propose a mechanism which may connect these oceanic and atmospheric fluctuations, possibly as part of a coupled ocean–atmosphere mode of variability7. Our results are encouraging for the prospects of forecasting natural fluctuations in the climate of the North Atlantic region several years in advance.