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Atlantic-induced pan-tropical climate change over the past three decades

Abstract

During the past three decades, tropical sea surface temperature (SST) has shown dipole-like trends, with warming over the tropical Atlantic and Indo-western Pacific but cooling over the eastern Pacific. Competing hypotheses relate this cooling, identified as a driver of the global warming hiatus1,2, to the warming trends in either the Atlantic3,4 or Indian Ocean5. However, the mechanisms, the relative importance and the interactions between these teleconnections remain unclear. Using a state-of-the-art climate model, we show that the Atlantic plays a key role in initiating the tropical-wide teleconnection, and the Atlantic-induced anomalies contribute 55–75% of the tropical SST and circulation changes during the satellite era. The Atlantic warming drives easterly wind anomalies over the Indo-western Pacific as Kelvin waves and westerly anomalies over the eastern Pacific as Rossby waves. The wind changes induce an Indo-western Pacific warming through the wind–evaporation–SST effect6,7, and this warming intensifies the La Niña-type response in the tropical Pacific by enhancing the easterly trade winds and through the Bjerknes ocean dynamical processes8. The teleconnection develops into a tropical-wide SST dipole pattern. This mechanism, supported by observations and a hierarchy of climate models, reveals that the tropical ocean basins are more tightly connected than previously thought.

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Figure 1: Comparison of observed tropical climate changes with CESM coupled model simulation forced by the observed tropical-Atlantic-only SST changes.
Figure 2: Physical pathway for the Atlantic warming to drive tropical-wide SST changes.
Figure 3: Schematic graph of the physical mechanism.

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Acknowledgements

X.L. was supported by the Scripps Postdoctoral Fellowship; S.-P.X. was supported by the NSF grant AGS-1305719; S.T.G. was supported by the NSF grant OCE-1234473. C.Y. was supported by the Korea Meteorological Administration Research and Development Program under Grant KMIPA 2015–6110. The HadISST sea surface temperature (SST) data were provided by the British Met Office, Hadley Centre. The Kaplan SST and ERSST data sets were provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory. The Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP) data were provided by the World Climate Research Programme’s (WCRP) Global Energy and Water Exchanges Projects (GEWEX). Ishii subsurface temperature data were provided by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) CISL Data Research Archive. The ERA-Interim atmospheric reanalysis was provided by the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). We thank the WCRP Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for the CMIP multi-model ensemble. The Community Earth System Model, CESM, and its atmospheric component, CAM4, were made available by NCAR, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Office of Science (BER) of the US Department of Energy (DOE). The idealized atmospheric model, GFDL dry dynamical core, was developed by NOAA at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL). Computing resources were provided by Yellowstone high-performance computing (HPC) in NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, and by the HPC at New York University (NYU).

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X.L., S.-P.X. and S.T.G. designed the experiments; X.L. performed the data analysis and numerical simulations, and prepared all figures; X.L. and C.Y. ran the CESM and GFDL simulations; all authors wrote and reviewed the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Xichen Li or Shang-Ping Xie.

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Li, X., Xie, SP., Gille, S. et al. Atlantic-induced pan-tropical climate change over the past three decades. Nature Clim Change 6, 275–279 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2840

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