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Recent Walker circulation strengthening and Pacific cooling amplified by Atlantic warming

Abstract

An unprecedented strengthening of Pacific trade winds since the late 1990s (ref. 1) has caused widespread climate perturbations, including rapid sea-level rise in the western tropical Pacific2,3,4,5, strengthening of Indo-Pacific ocean currents6,7, and an increased uptake of heat in the equatorial Pacific thermocline1. The corresponding intensification of the atmospheric Walker circulation is also associated with sea surface cooling in the eastern Pacific, which has been identified as one of the contributors to the current pause in global surface warming1,8,9. In spite of recent progress in determining the climatic impacts of the Pacific trade wind acceleration, the cause of this pronounced trend in atmospheric circulation remains unknown. Here we analyse a series of climate model experiments along with observational data to show that the recent warming trend in Atlantic sea surface temperature and the corresponding trans-basin displacements of the main atmospheric pressure centres were key drivers of the observed Walker circulation intensification, eastern Pacific cooling, North American rainfall trends and western Pacific sea-level rise. Our study suggests that global surface warming has been partly offset by the Pacific climate response to enhanced Atlantic warming since the early 1990s.

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Figure 1: Trends (1992–2011) of SST, SLP, wind stress and relative precipitation.
Figure 2: Changes of global Walker circulation.
Figure 3: Atlantic and Pacific SST anomalies and their effect on SLP anomaly and wind anomalies.
Figure 4: Simulated and observed trans-basin climate trends.

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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. A.T. was supported through NSF grant No. 1049219. M.F.S. and F-F.J. were supported by US NSF grant ATM1034798, US Department of Energy grant DESC005110 and US NOAA grant NA10OAR4310200. The AVISO 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.

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S.M. and A.T. conceived the study and wrote the initial manuscript draft. A.T. analysed observational and CMIP5 data, M.F.S. conducted the AGCM and partially coupled model simulations, S.M. analysed the model output and the AMIP5 simulations. All authors contributed to interpreting the results, discussion of the associated dynamics, and refinement of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Axel Timmermann.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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McGregor, S., Timmermann, A., Stuecker, M. et al. Recent Walker circulation strengthening and Pacific cooling amplified by Atlantic warming. Nature Clim Change 4, 888–892 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2330

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