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


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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Figure 1: Observed trend pattern of annual mean field for 1979–2012.
Figure 2: Coupled patterns between annual mean tropical SST and Northern Hemisphere circulation for 1979–2012.
Figure 3: Simulated 1979–2012 trend patterns in annual mean fields in ECHAM.
Figure 4: Simulated 1979–2004 trend patterns in annual mean fields in CMIP5.

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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Qinghua Ding.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Observed trend pattern of annual mean surface temperature for 1979–2012.

Linear trend (per decade) of annual mean surface and near-surface temperature for a, ERA-interim, b, MERRA reanalysis, c, University of Delaware and d, GISTEMP for the period of 1979–2012. The grey regions in c and d indicate no data.

Extended Data Figure 2 Observed trend pattern of seasonal mean surface temperature for 1979–2012.

Linear trend (per decade) of seasonal mean ERA-interim surface temperature for a, December to February (DJF), b, March to May (MAM), c, June to August (JJA) and d, September to November (SON) for the period 1979–2012.

Extended Data Figure 3 Observed trend pattern of seasonal mean 300–850 hPa temperature for 1979–2012.

Linear trend (per decade) of seasonal mean ERA-interim 300–850 hPa temperature for a, DJF, b, MAM, c, JJA and d, SON for the period 1979–2012.

Extended Data Figure 4 Observed trend pattern of annual mean field for 1979–2012.

Linear trend (per decade) of annual mean a, 500-hPa geopotential height (Z500), and b, sea level pressure (SLP) of ERA-interim for the period 1979–2012. Solid (dashed) contours indicate positive (negative) trends.

Extended Data Figure 5 Observed trend pattern of seasonal mean 200-hPa geopotential height for 1979–2012.

Linear trend (per decade) of seasonal mean ERA-interim 200-hPa geopotential height for a, DJF, b, MAM, c, JJA and d, SON for the period 1979–2012. Solid (dashed) contours indicate positive (negative) trends.

Extended Data Figure 6 Observed surface temperature and Z200 change in northeastern Canada and Greenland.

a, Annual mean surface temperature, Surf-T(land), and Z200 averaged over northeastern Canada and Greenland (55° N–85° N, 280° E–340° E, denoted by a box in Fig. 1c), and NOAA NAO index14 (sign is reversed for simplicity of comparison) for the period 1979–2012. The units on the left ordinate are geopotential metres; the units on the right ordinate are °C (surface temperature) and unitless (NAO index). be, Surface temperature and Z200 averaged over northeastern Canada and Greenland (55° N–85° N, 280° N–340° N, denoted by a box in Fig. 1c) for each season for the period 1979–2012. The correlation coefficient (r) of two curves is denoted in the bottom right corner. The first (second) number denotes the correlation between the raw (detrended) time series.

Extended Data Figure 7 Observed and simulated annual mean tropical rainfall trend patterns for 1979–2012.

Linear trend (mm per day per decade) of annual mean a, observed GPCP31 rainfall, b, simulated rainfall from 34-year simulation of ECHAM run forced by observed SST (1979–2012) in the tropics (30° N to 30° S). In the extratropics and the polar region, the atmosphere is coupled to a slab ocean model with a thermodynamic sea-ice component.

Extended Data Figure 8 MCA2 SST related annual mean land surface temperature.

a, Correlation (colour scale shows r) between the time series of the MCA2 pattern of annual mean SST (blue curve in Fig. 2d) and annual mean land surface temperature in ERA-interim during 1979–2012. b, As a but using the detrended surface air temperature data and the detrended time series of mode 2 SST.

Extended Data Figure 9 Coupled patterns between detrended annual mean tropical SST and Northern Hemisphere circulation for 1979–2012.

Figure shows MCA results for detrended annual mean 1979–2012 Northern Hemisphere (0-88.5° N) 200-hPa geopotential heights (Z200) and tropical (20° S to 20° N) sea surface temperature (SST). Shown in a are the patterns of Z200 (contour interval 10 metres) and tropical SST (shading) that accompany the first mode in these two data sets. Panel c displays the time series of the Z200 (red) and SST (blue) patterns shown in a. Panels b and d are the same as in a and c but for the second mode. Amplitudes in a and b are scaled by one standard deviation of the corresponding time series in c and d; the latter have a standard deviation of one.

Extended Data Table 1 40 climate models in the CMIP5 historical experiment

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Ding, Q., Wallace, J., Battisti, D. et al. Tropical forcing of the recent rapid Arctic warming in northeastern Canada and Greenland. Nature 509, 209–212 (2014).

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