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North Atlantic Ocean control on surface heat flux on multidecadal timescales


Nearly 50 years ago Bjerknes1 suggested that the character of large-scale air–sea interaction over the mid-latitude North Atlantic Ocean differs with timescales: the atmosphere was thought to drive directly most short-term—interannual—sea surface temperature (SST) variability, and the ocean to contribute significantly to long-term—multidecadal—SST and potentially atmospheric variability. Although the conjecture for short timescales is well accepted, understanding Atlantic multidecadal variability (AMV) of SST2,3 remains a challenge as a result of limited ocean observations. AMV is nonetheless of major socio-economic importance because it is linked to important climate phenomena such as Atlantic hurricane activity and Sahel rainfall, and it hinders the detection of anthropogenic signals in the North Atlantic sector4,5,6. Direct evidence of the oceanic influence of AMV can only be provided by surface heat fluxes, the language of ocean–atmosphere communication. Here we provide observational evidence that in the mid-latitude North Atlantic and on timescales longer than 10 years, surface turbulent heat fluxes are indeed driven by the ocean and may force the atmosphere, whereas on shorter timescales the converse is true, thereby confirming the Bjerknes conjecture. This result, although strongest in boreal winter, is found in all seasons. Our findings suggest that the predictability of mid-latitude North Atlantic air–sea interaction could extend beyond the ocean to the climate of surrounding continents.

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Figure 1: Spatial pattern of correlation between the AMV SST index and anomalies of surface turbulent heat fluxes for the long-term and short-term components.
Figure 2: Time series of AMV SST index and anomalies of sensible plus latent heat flux in the mid-latitudinal North Atlantic.
Figure 3: Cross-spectral analysis of the AMV SST index and anomalies of surface turbulent heat fluxes.
Figure 4: Changing correlations between the AMV SST index and anomalies of surface heat fluxes with the length of the filtering window.

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This study was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft under grant KE 1471/2-1 and by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science through the Special Grant for establishing excellence at Russian Universities, no. 11.G34.31.0007. We also benefited from contracts 2011-16-420-1-001 and 11.519.11.6034 with the Russian Ministry of Education and Science and the RACE project of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

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Authors and Affiliations



The main idea of this study belongs to S.K.G. and M.L.; most of the computations were performed by S.K.G. S.K.G., M.L., N.K., W.P. and K.P.K. have contributed equally to discussion of the results and writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to Sergey K. Gulev.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-15, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary References and guidelines for accessing the Supplementary Data file. (PDF 4295 kb)

Supplementary Data

This zipped file contains a WinRAR file containing reconstructed surface turbulent heat fluxes, different AMV SST indices and a READ_ME file with guidelines and F77 code for reading the data (see Supplementary Information document for guidelines). (ZIP 378 kb)

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Gulev, S., Latif, M., Keenlyside, N. et al. North Atlantic Ocean control on surface heat flux on multidecadal timescales. Nature 499, 464–467 (2013).

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