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Weakening of the equatorial Atlantic cold tongue over the past six decades


Seasonal and interannual variations of the equatorial cold tongue are defining features of the tropical Atlantic Ocean, with significant climatic1,2,3 and biogeochemical4 effects. However, its long-term changes are poorly understood owing to biases in observations and climate models5. Here we use a suite of bias-corrected observations, and find that cold-tongue variability has weakened during the past six decades. We find that sea surface temperature has increased across the basin, with a local enhancement over the eastern equatorial Atlantic. This warming pattern of the sea surface is most pronounced during boreal summer, reducing the annual cycle through a positive ocean–atmosphere feedback. Specifically, the eastward-intensified warming leads to enhanced atmospheric convection in the equatorial eastern Atlantic region, as well as to less vigorous trade winds. These in turn deepen the thermocline in the east, and reinforce the sea surface warming pattern. The flattened thermocline and reduced thermocline feedback weaken interannual variability of equatorial sea surface temperatures and Guinea coast precipitation associated with the Atlantic Niño. We suggest that the observed changes could be associated with cooling by anthropogenic aerosols, an effect that is stronger in the Northern than in the Southern Hemisphere. If the aerosol emissions decrease in the next decades, the tropical Atlantic may experience yet another shift as the greenhouse gas forcing increases.

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Figure 1: Weakening of the equatorial Atlantic cold tongue and reduced Atlantic Niño variability.
Figure 2: Patterns of tropical Atlantic climate change.
Figure 3: Weakening of the annual cycles in the equatorial Atlantic.
Figure 4: Patterns of the simulated climate change for 1900–1999.


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The work was supported by NOAA, NSF, NASA and JAMSTEC. We thank T. Ogata for conducting the ocean GCM hindcast.

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H.T. and S-P.X. contributed to the central ideas presented in the paper. H.T. compiled and analysed ship observations. H.T. and S-P.X. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Hiroki Tokinaga.

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Tokinaga, H., Xie, SP. Weakening of the equatorial Atlantic cold tongue over the past six decades. Nature Geosci 4, 222–226 (2011).

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