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Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector

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The climate of the North Atlantic region exhibits fluctuations on decadal timescales that have large societal consequences. Prominent examples include hurricane activity in the Atlantic1, and surface-temperature and rainfall variations over North America2, Europe3 and northern Africa4. Although these multidecadal variations are potentially predictable if the current state of the ocean is known5,6,7, the lack of subsurface ocean observations8 that constrain this state has been a limiting factor for realizing the full skill potential of such predictions9. Here we apply a simple approach—that uses only sea surface temperature (SST) observations—to partly overcome this difficulty and perform retrospective decadal predictions with a climate model. Skill is improved significantly relative to predictions made with incomplete knowledge of the ocean state10, particularly in the North Atlantic and tropical Pacific oceans. Thus these results point towards the possibility of routine decadal climate predictions. Using this method, and by considering both internal natural climate variations and projected future anthropogenic forcing, we make the following forecast: over the next decade, the current Atlantic meridional overturning circulation will weaken to its long-term mean; moreover, North Atlantic SST and European and North American surface temperatures will cool slightly, whereas tropical Pacific SST will remain almost unchanged. Our results suggest that global surface temperature may not increase over the next decade, as natural climate variations in the North Atlantic and tropical Pacific temporarily offset the projected anthropogenic warming.

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Figure 1: Correlation skill in predicting observed ten-year mean surface temperature anomalies a decade in advance relative to other more traditional approaches.
Figure 2: SST restoring forces robust multidecadal fluctuations in the Atlantic Ocean meridional overturning circulation, Labrador Sea convection and the North Atlantic Oscillation.
Figure 3: Hindcast/forecast decadal means of selected time series, compared with observations and climate model projections including only radiative forcing changes but not initialized using ocean observations.
Figure 4: Hindcast/forecast decadal variations in global mean temperature, as compared with observations and standard climate model projections.

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  • 08 May 2008

    When this paper was published on 1 May 2008, the e-mail address given for the corresponding author was incorrect. This was corrected online-only on 8 May 2008. The correct address is


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Computing resources at the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, the Deutsches Klimarechenzentrum and the Norddeutscher Verbund für Hoch- und Höchstleistungsrechnen are acknowledged. Deutscher Wetterdienst provided significant CPU allocations. The work was supported by the European Union ENSEMBLES and German BMBF NORDATLANTIK projects. We thank M. Esch for performing the three twentieth century-RF simulations, and F. Nevoigt for help with art work.

Author Contributions N.S.K. and M.L. designed experiments. N.S.K. performed experiments and analysis. M.L. and J.J. contributed to analysis. L.K., J.J. and E.R. provided the model and support. N.S.K. and M.L. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to N. S. Keenlyside.

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The file contains Supplementary Discussion on global correlation skill and root mean square error maps; surface temperature maps for 1994-2004 and 2005-2015 decades; and Supplementary Figures 1-4 with Legends. (PDF 686 kb)

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Keenlyside, N., Latif, M., Jungclaus, J. et al. Advancing decadal-scale climate prediction in the North Atlantic sector. Nature 453, 84–88 (2008).

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