Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Solar forcing of winter climate variability in the Northern Hemisphere


An influence of solar irradiance variations on Earth’s surface climate has been repeatedly suggested, based on correlations between solar variability and meteorological variables1. Specifically, weaker westerly winds have been observed in winters with a less active sun, for example at the minimum phase of the 11-year sunspot cycle2,3,4. With some possible exceptions5,6, it has proved difficult for climate models to consistently reproduce this signal7,8. Spectral Irradiance Monitor satellite measurements indicate that variations in solar ultraviolet irradiance may be larger than previously thought9. Here we drive an ocean–atmosphere climate model with ultraviolet irradiance variations based on these observations. We find that the model responds to the solar minimum with patterns in surface pressure and temperature that resemble the negative phase of the North Atlantic or Arctic Oscillation, of similar magnitude to observations. In our model, the anomalies descend through the depth of the extratropical winter atmosphere. If the updated measurements of solar ultraviolet irradiance are correct, low solar activity, as observed during recent years, drives cold winters in northern Europe and the United States, and mild winters over southern Europe and Canada, with little direct change in globally averaged temperature. Given the quasiregularity of the 11-year solar cycle, our findings may help improve decadal climate predictions for highly populated extratropical regions.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Difference in winter surface climate for solar minimum minus solar maximum.
Figure 2: Agreement between modelled and observed surface climate response.
Figure 3: Polewards and downwards progression of solar climate signal.
Figure 4: Modelled large-scale wave driving of solar climate response.


  1. 1

    Gray, L. J. et al. Solar influences on climate. Rev. Geophys. 48, RG4001 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Labitzke, K. Sunspots, the QBO, and the stratospheric temperature in the north polar region. Geophys. Res. Lett. 14, 535–537 (1987).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Kodera, K. On the origin and nature of the interannual variability of the winter stratospheric circulation in the northern hemisphere. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 14077–14087 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Kodera, K. & Kuroda, Y. Dynamical response to the solar cycle. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 4749 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Matthes, K., Kuroda, Y., Kodera, K. & Langematz, U. Transfer of the solar signal from the stratosphere to the troposphere: Northern winter. J. Geophys. Res. 111, D06108 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Shindell, D. T., Schmidt, G. A., Miller, R. L. & Rind, D. Northern Hemisphere winter climate response to greenhouse gas, ozone, solar, and volcanic forcing. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 7193–7210 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Schmidt, H., Brasseur, G. P. & Giorgetta, M. A. Solar cycle signal in a general circulation and chemistry model with internally generated quasi-biennial oscillation. J. Geophys. Res. 115, D00I14 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Tsutsui, J., Nishizawa, K. & Sassi, F. Response of the middle atmosphere to the 11-year solar cycle simulated with the whole atmosphere community climate model. J. Geophys. Res. 114, D02111 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Harder, J. W., Fontenla, J. M., Pilewskie, P., Richard, E. C. & Woods, T. N. Trends in solar spectral irradiance variability in the visible and infrared. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L07801 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Haigh, J. D. A GCM study of climate change in response to the 11-year solar cycle. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 125, 871–892 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Haigh, J. D., Winning, A., Toumi, R. & Harder, J. W. An influence of solar spectral variations on radiative forcing of climate. Nature 467, 696–699 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Lean, J. Evolution of the sun’s spectral irradiance since the Maunder minimum. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 2425–2428 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Krivova, N. A., Solanki, S. K., Wenzler, T. & Podlipnik, B. Reconstruction of solar UV irradiance since 1974. J. Geophys. Res. 114, D00I04 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Garcia, R. R. Atmospheric physics: Solar surprise? Nature 467, 668–669 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Hewitt, H. T. et al. Design and implementation of the infrastructure of HadGEM3: The next-generation Met Office climate modelling system. Geosci. Model Dev. 4, 223–253 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Roy, I. & Haigh, J. D. Solar cycle signals in sea level pressure and sea surface temperature. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 10, 3147–3153 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Woollings, T., Lockwood, M., Masato, G., Bell, C. & Gray, L. Enhanced signature of solar variability in Eurasian winter climate. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L20805 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Hines, C. O. A possible mechanism for the production of sun–weather correlations. J. Atmos. Sci. 31, 589–591 (1974).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Scaife, A. A. & James, I. N. Response of the stratosphere to interannual variability of tropospheric planetary waves. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 126, 275–297 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Scaife, A. A., Knight, J. R., Vallis, G. K. & Folland, C. K. A stratospheric influence on the winter NAO and North Atlantic surface climate. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L18715 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Wittman, M. A. H., Polvani, L. M., Scott, R. K. & Charlton, A. J. Stratospheric influence on baroclinic lifecycles and its connection to the Arctic Oscillation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L16113 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Simpson, I. R., Blackburn, M. & Haigh, J. D. The role of eddies in driving the tropospheric response to stratospheric heating perturbations. J. Atmos. Sci. 66, 1347–1365 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Kodera, K., Yamazaki, K., Chiba, M. & Shibata, K. Downward propagation of upper stratospheric mean zonal wind perturbation to the troposphere. Geophys. Res. Lett. 17, 1263–1266 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Cahalan, R. F., Wen, G., Harder, J. W. & Pilewskie, P. Temperature responses to spectral solar variability on decadal time scales. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L07705 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Meehl, G. A., Arblaster, J. M., Matthes, K., Sassi, F. & van Loon, H. Amplifying the Pacific climate system response to a small 11-year solar cycle forcing. Science 325, 1114–1118 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Lockwood, M., Harrison, R. G., Woollings, T. & Solanki, S. Are cold winters in Europe associated with low solar activity? Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 024001 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Shindell, D. T., Schmidt, G. A., Mann, M. E., Rind, D. & Waple, A. Solar forcing of regional climate change during the Maunder minimum. Science 294, 2149–2152 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Arribas, A. et al. The GloSea4 ensemble prediction system for seasonal forecasting. Mon. Weath. Rev. 139, 1891–1910 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Kushnir, Y., Robinson, W. A., Chang, P. & Robertson, A. W. The physical basis for predicting Atlantic sector seasonal-to-interannual climate variability. J. Clim. 19, 5949–5970 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Uppala, S. M. et al. The ERA-40 re-analysis. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 131, 2961–3012 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the Joint DECC/Defra Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme (GA01101) (Met Office Hadley Centre authors), by the UK Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) through their National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAS) Climate Programme (L.J.G.) and by the NERC SOLCLI consortium grant (J.D.H.). We thank D. Shindell for comments on the manuscript. The ERA-40 and ERA-Interim data are provided by ECMWF from their data server and we are grateful to T. Woollings for categorizing past years with respect to observed solar variability.

Author information




S.I. ran the model experiments. A.A.S. and S.I. analysed the results. J.C.M. advised on adapting the radiation code. J.R.K. analysed the ERA reanalysis data and advised on statistical methods. A.A.S., S.I., J.C.M. and N.J.D. wrote the paper. All authors planned the experiment, discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sarah Ineson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 481 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ineson, S., Scaife, A., Knight, J. et al. Solar forcing of winter climate variability in the Northern Hemisphere. Nature Geosci 4, 753–757 (2011).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing