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Response of the North Atlantic storm track to climate change shaped by ocean–atmosphere coupling


A poleward shift of the mid-latitude storm tracks in response to anthropogenic greenhouse-gas forcing has been diagnosed in climate model simulations1,2. Explanations of this effect have focused on atmospheric dynamics3,4,5,6,7. However, in contrast to storm tracks in other regions, the North Atlantic storm track responds by strengthening and extending farther east, in particular on its southern flank8. These adjustments are associated with an intensification and extension of the eddy-driven jet towards western Europe9 and are expected to have considerable societal impacts related to a rise in storminess in Europe10,11,12. Here, we apply a regression analysis to an ensemble of coupled climate model simulations to show that the coupling between ocean and atmosphere shapes the distinct storm-track response to greenhouse-gas forcing in the North Atlantic region. In the ensemble of simulations we analyse, at least half of the differences between the storm-track responses of different models are associated with uncertainties in ocean circulation changes. We compare the fully coupled simulations with both the associated slab model simulations and an ocean-forced experiment with one climate model to establish causality. We conclude that uncertainties in the response of the North Atlantic storm track to anthropogenic emissions could be reduced through tighter constraints on the future ocean circulation.

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Figure 1: Maps of regression slopes quantifying ocean–atmosphere relationships in the wintertime responses of the AOGCMs to anthropogenic forcing.
Figure 2: Quantifying the role of the MOC in the mean and model spread of the storm-track response.
Figure 3: Comparison of the mean responses of the surface temperature, 850 hPa zonal wind and the storm tracks in the AOGCMs and slab models.

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We acknowledge the modelling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison and the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling for their roles in making available the World Climate Research Programme CMIP3 multimodel data set. Support of this data set is provided by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. We would like to thank J. Moemken (Univ. Cologne) for assistance with some of the data processing and M. Vellinga (UK Met Office) for providing data from the HadCM3 hosing simulations.

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T.W. led the analysis and writing of the paper, J.M.G. analysed the ocean data, J.G.P. and M.R. analysed the storm-track data and D.J.B. analysed the HadCM3 data. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

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Correspondence to T. Woollings.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Woollings, T., Gregory, J., Pinto, J. et al. Response of the North Atlantic storm track to climate change shaped by ocean–atmosphere coupling. Nature Geosci 5, 313–317 (2012).

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