North Atlantic Ocean control on surface heat flux on multidecadal timescales

Article metrics


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1

    Bjerknes, J. in Advances in Geophysics Vol. 10 (eds Landberg, H. E. & van Mieghem, J. ) 1–82 (Academic, 1964)

  2. 2

    Delworth, T. S., Manabe, S. & Stouffer, R. J. Interdecadal variations of the thermohaline circulation in a coupled ocean–atmosphere model. J. Clim. 6, 1993–2011 (1993)

  3. 3

    Latif, M. et al. Reconstructing, monitoring, and predicting multidecadal-scale changes in the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation with sea surface temperature. J. Clim. 17, 1605–1614 (2004)

  4. 4

    Knight, J. R., Allan, R. J., Folland, C. F., Vellinga, M. & Mann, M. E. A signature of persistent natural thermohaline circulation cycles in observed climate. Geophys. Res. Lett.. 32 L20708, (2005)

  5. 5

    Sutton, R. T. & Hodson, D. Climate Atlantic Ocean forcing of North American and European summer. Science 309, 115–118 (2005)

  6. 6

    Zhang, R. & Delworth, T. L. Impact of Atlantic multidecadal oscillations on India/Sahel rainfall and Atlantic hurricanes. Geophys. Res. Lett.. 33 L17712, (2006)

  7. 7

    Otterå, O. H., Bentsen, M., Drange, H. & Suo, L. External forcing as a metronome for Atlantic multidecadal variability. Nature Geosci. 3, 688–694 (2010)

  8. 8

    Booth, B. B. B., Dunstone, N. J., Halloran, P. R., Andrews, T. & Bellouin, N. Aerosols implicated as a prime driver of twentieth-century North Atlantic climate variability. Nature 484, 228–232 (2012)

  9. 9

    Forster, P. V. et al. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 129–234 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)

  10. 10

    Kushnir, Y. et al. Atmospheric GCM response to extratropical SST anomalies: synthesis and evaluation. J. Clim. 15, 2233–2256 (2002)

  11. 11

    Rodwell, M. J., Rowell, D. P. & Folland, C. K. Oceanic forcing of the wintertime North Atlantic Oscillation and European climate. Nature 398, 320–323 (1999)

  12. 12

    Kushnir, Y. Interdecadal variations in the North Atlantic sea surface temperature and associated atmospheric conditions. J. Clim. 7, 141–157 (1994)

  13. 13

    Semenov, V. A. et al. The impact of North Atlantic–Arctic multidecadal variability on Northern Hemisphere surface air temperature. J. Clim. 23, 5668–5677 (2010)

  14. 14

    Pohlmann, H., Sienz, F. & Latif, M. Influence of the multidecadal Atlantic meridional overturning circulation variability on European climate. J. Clim. 19, 6062–6067 (2006)

  15. 15

    Cayan, D. R. Latent and sensible heat flux anomalies over the northern oceans: driving the sea surface temperature. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 22, 859–881 (1992)

  16. 16

    Woodruff, S. D. et al. ICOADS Release 2.5: extensions and enhancements to the surface marine meteorological archive. Int. J. Climatol. 31, 951–967 (2011)

  17. 17

    Rayner, N. A. et al. Global analyses of sea surface temperature, sea ice, and night marine air temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res.. 108 (D14), 4407, (2003)

  18. 18

    Fairall, C. W., Bradley, E. F., Hare, J. E., Grachev, A. A. & Edson, J. B. Bulk parameterization of air–sea fluxes: updates and verification for the COARE algorithm. J. Clim. 16, 591 (2003)

  19. 19

    Gulev, S. K. & Belyaev, K. P. Probability distribution characteristics for surface air–sea turbulent heat fluxes over the global ocean. J. Clim. 25, 184–206 (2012)

  20. 20

    Compo, G. P. et al. The Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 1–28 (2011)

  21. 21

    Shaffrey, L. & Sutton, R. Bjerknes compensation and the decadal variability of the energy transports in a coupled climate model. J. Clim. 19, 1167–1181 (2006)

  22. 22

    Yu, B., Boer, G. J., Zwiers, F. W. & Merryfield, W. J. Covariability of SST and surface heat fluxes in reanalyses and CMIP3 climate models. Clim. Dyn. 36, 589–605 (2011)

  23. 23

    Hurrell, J. W. Decadal trends in the North Atlantic Oscillation: regional temperatures and precipitation. Science 269, 676–679 (1995)

  24. 24

    Eden, C. & Willebrand, J. Mechanism of interannual to decadal variability of the North Atlantic circulation. J. Clim. 14, 2266–2280 (2001)

  25. 25

    Gulev, S. K., Jung, T. & Ruprecht, E. Estimation of the impact of sampling errors in the VOS observations on air–sea fluxes. Part I. Uncertainties in climate means. J. Clim. 20, 279–301 (2007)

  26. 26

    Kent, E. C., Woodruff, S. D. & Berry, D. I. Metadata from WMO Publication No. 47 and an assessment of Voluntary Observing Ship observation heights in ICOADS. J. Atmos. Ocean. Technol. 24, 214–234 (2007)

  27. 27

    Josey, S., Kent, E. C. & Taylor, P. K. New insights into the ocean heat budget closure problem from analysis of the SOC air–sea flux climatology. J. Clim. 12, 2856–2880 (1999)

  28. 28

    Ebisuzaki, W. A method to estimate the statistical significance of a correlation when the data are serially correlated. J. Clim. 10, 2147–2153 (1997)

  29. 29

    Hayashi, Y. Space time cross spectral analysis using the maximum entropy method. J. Meteorol. Soc. Jpn. 59, 621–624 (1981)

  30. 30

    Yu, L. & Weller, R. A. Objectively analyzed air–sea heat fluxes for the global ice-free oceans (1981–2005). Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 88, 527–539 (2007)

  31. 31

    Duchon, C. E. Lanczos filtering in one and two dimensions. J. Appl. Meteor. 18, 1016–1022 (1979)

  32. 32

    Ting, M., Kushnir, Y., Seager, R. & Li, C. Forced and internal twentieth-century SST trends in the North Atlantic. J. Clim. 22, 1469–1481 (2009)

  33. 33

    Livezey, R. E. & Chen, W. Y. Statistical field significance and its determination by Monte-Carlo techniques. Mon. Weath. Rev. 111, 46–59 (1983)

Download references


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.

Author information

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.

Correspondence to Sergey K. Gulev.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

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)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gulev, S., Latif, M., Keenlyside, N. et al. North Atlantic Ocean control on surface heat flux on multidecadal timescales. Nature 499, 464–467 (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12268

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.