Tropical forcing of the recent rapid Arctic warming in northeastern Canada and Greenland

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Rapid Arctic warming and sea-ice reduction in the Arctic Ocean are widely attributed to anthropogenic climate change1,2,3. The Arctic warming exceeds the global average warming because of feedbacks that include sea-ice reduction4,5 and other dynamical and radiative feedbacks6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13. We find that the most prominent annual mean surface and tropospheric warming in the Arctic since 1979 has occurred in northeastern Canada and Greenland. In this region, much of the year-to-year temperature variability is associated with the leading mode of large-scale circulation variability in the North Atlantic, namely, the North Atlantic Oscillation14,15. Here we show that the recent warming in this region is strongly associated with a negative trend in the North Atlantic Oscillation, which is a response to anomalous Rossby wave-train activity originating in the tropical Pacific. Atmospheric model experiments forced by prescribed tropical sea surface temperatures simulate the observed circulation changes and associated tropospheric and surface warming over northeastern Canada and Greenland. Experiments from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (ref. 16) models with prescribed anthropogenic forcing show no similar circulation changes related to the North Atlantic Oscillation or associated tropospheric warming. This suggests that a substantial portion of recent warming in the northeastern Canada and Greenland sector of the Arctic arises from unforced natural variability.

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We thank the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology model developer for making ECHAM4.6 available and C. Bitz, Q. Fu, D. L. Hartmann, D. Frierson and W.-J. Li for discussion. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation (OPP 1043092 and ATM 1122989). Q.D. acknowledges support from the University of Washington’s Quaternary Research Center and the National Basic Research Program of China (973 Program-2013CB430203). H.-J.K. acknowledges support from the APEC Climate Center.

Author information


  1. Department of Earth and Space Sciences and Quaternary Research Center, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Qinghua Ding
    •  & Eric J. Steig
  2. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • John M. Wallace
    • , David S. Battisti
    •  & Lei Geng
  3. School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Victoria 3800, Australia

    • Ailie J. E. Gallant
  4. Climate Research Department, APEC Climate Center, 12 Centum 7-ro, Haeundae-gu, Busan 612-020, South Korea

    • Hyung-Jin Kim


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Q.D. made the calculations, implemented the general circulation model experiments, created the figures, and led the writing of the paper. All authors contributed to the experimental design, and to writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Qinghua Ding.

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