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Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus

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Abstract

Despite ongoing increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases, the Earth’s global average surface air temperature has remained more or less steady since 2001. A variety of mechanisms have been proposed to account for this slowdown in surface warming. A key component of the global hiatus that has been identified is cool eastern Pacific sea surface temperature, but it is unclear how the ocean has remained relatively cool there in spite of ongoing increases in radiative forcing. Here we show that a pronounced strengthening in Pacific trade winds over the past two decades—unprecedented in observations/reanalysis data and not captured by climate models—is sufficient to account for the cooling of the tropical Pacific and a substantial slowdown in surface warming through increased subsurface ocean heat uptake. The extra uptake has come about through increased subduction in the Pacific shallow overturning cells, enhancing heat convergence in the equatorial thermocline. At the same time, the accelerated trade winds have increased equatorial upwelling in the central and eastern Pacific, lowering sea surface temperature there, which drives further cooling in other regions. The net effect of these anomalous winds is a cooling in the 2012 global average surface air temperature of 0.1–0.2 °C, which can account for much of the hiatus in surface warming observed since 2001. This hiatus could persist for much of the present decade if the trade wind trends continue, however rapid warming is expected to resume once the anomalous wind trends abate.

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Figure 1: Global average SAT and Pacific trade wind anomalies over the past century.
Figure 2: Observed trends in winds, SLP, sea surface height, SST and SAT during 1992–2011.
Figure 3: Schematic of the trends in temperature and ocean–atmosphere circulation in the Pacific over the past two decades.
Figure 4: Model temperature and ocean circulation anomalies due to observed 1992–2011 wind trends over the Pacific Ocean, and projections to 2050.
Figure 5: Recent annual average global air temperature anomalies and Pacific wind trends compared with model projections.

Change history

  • 14 February 2014

    In the version of this Article originally published online, the y axis label 'Zonal wind stress anomalies' of Fig. 1b should have had units of ×10–1 N m–2. This error has now been corrected in all versions of the Article.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) including the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate System Science and an award under the Merit Allocation Scheme on the NCI National Facility at the ANU, Canberra. A.T. was supported through NSF grant number 1049219. W.C. was supported by the Australian Climate Change Science Programme. The altimeter products were produced by the CLS Space Oceanography Division as part of the Environment and Climate EU ENACT project (EVK2-CT2001-00117) and with support from CNES. This is PMEL contribution no. 4053.

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M.H.E. conceived the study and wrote the initial draft of the paper. M.H.E., S.M. and P.S. formulated the experimental design and observational data analyses. P.S. conducted and analysed the ocean model experiments, S.M. analysed the observational data. M.H.E. designed and A.P. computed the analysis of the CMIP5 experiments, A.S.G. analysed the ocean reanalysis trends and A.S. ran the coupled model experiments. All authors contributed to interpreting the results, discussion of the associated dynamics and refinement of the paper.

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Correspondence to Matthew H. England.

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England, M., McGregor, S., Spence, P. et al. Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus. Nature Clim Change 4, 222–227 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2106

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