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Solar forcing of winter climate variability in the Northern Hemisphere

Nature Geoscience volume 4, pages 753757 (2011) | Download Citation


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.

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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.

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  1. Met Office Hadley Centre, FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB, UK

    • Sarah Ineson
    • , Adam A. Scaife
    • , Jeff R. Knight
    • , James C. Manners
    •  & Nick J. Dunstone
  2. National Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PU, UK

    • Lesley J. Gray
  3. Blackett Laboratory, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK

    • Joanna D. Haigh


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sarah Ineson.

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