Letter | Published:

Enhanced warming over the global subtropical western boundary currents

Nature Climate Change volume 2, pages 161166 (2012) | Download Citation

Abstract

Subtropical western boundary currents are warm, fast-flowing currents that form on the western side of ocean basins. They carry warm tropical water to the mid-latitudes and vent large amounts of heat and moisture to the atmosphere along their paths, affecting atmospheric jet streams and mid-latitude storms, as well as ocean carbon uptake1,2,3,4. The possibility that these highly energetic currents might change under greenhouse-gas forcing has raised significant concerns5,6,7, but detecting such changes is challenging owing to limited observations. Here, using reconstructed sea surface temperature datasets and century-long ocean and atmosphere reanalysis products, we find that the post-1900 surface ocean warming rate over the path of these currents is two to three times faster than the global mean surface ocean warming rate. The accelerated warming is associated with a synchronous poleward shift and/or intensification of global subtropical western boundary currents in conjunction with a systematic change in winds over both hemispheres. This enhanced warming may reduce the ability of the oceans to absorb anthropogenic carbon dioxide over these regions. However, uncertainties in detection and attribution of these warming trends remain, pointing to a need for a long-term monitoring network of the global western boundary currents and their extensions.

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Acknowledgements

This work is supported by China National Key Basic Research Project (2007CB411800) and National Natural Science Foundation Projects (40788002, 40930844, 40921004). W.C. is supported by the Australian Climate Change Science program and the Southeast Australia Climate Initiative. H.N. is supported in part by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology through Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research on Innovative Areas #2205 and by the Japanese Ministry of Environment through Global Environment Research Fund (S-5). M.J.M. is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office. PMEL Publication no. 3774.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Physical Oceanography Laboratory, Ocean University of China, Qingdao 266003, China

    • Lixin Wu
    •  & Liping Zhang
  2. CSIRO Marine and Atmosphere Research, Aspendale, Victoria 3195, Australia

    • Wenju Cai
  3. Department of Earth, Planetary Science, University of Tokyo, Tokyo 113-8656, Japan

    • Hisashi Nakamura
  4. International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Axel Timmermann
    •  & Bo Qiu
  5. Physical Oceanography Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Terry Joyce
  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

    • Michael J. McPhaden
  7. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Earth System Research Laboratory, Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA

    • Michael Alexander
  8. Leibniz-Institut für Meereswissenschaften, IFM-GEOMAR, D-24105 Kiel, Germany

    • Martin Visbeck
  9. Department of Oceanography, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843, USA

    • Ping Chang
    •  & Benjamin Giese

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Contributions

L.W. and W.C. contributed the central idea and wrote the initial draft of the paper. L.Z. performed data analyses. The remaining authors contributed to refining the ideas and to writing this paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lixin Wu.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1353

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