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The North Atlantic Oscillation as a driver of rapid climate change in the Northern Hemisphere


Pronounced climate changes have occurred since the 1970s, including rapid loss of Arctic sea ice1, large-scale warming2 and increased tropical storm activity3 in the Atlantic. Anthropogenic radiative forcing is likely to have played a major role in these changes4, but the relative influence of anthropogenic forcing and natural variability is not well established. The above changes have also occurred during a period in which the North Atlantic Oscillation has shown marked multidecadal variations5. Here we investigate the role of the North Atlantic Oscillation in these rapid changes through its influence on the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation and ocean heat transport. We use climate models to show that observed multidecadal variations of the North Atlantic Oscillation can induce multidecadal variations in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation and poleward ocean heat transport in the Atlantic, extending to the Arctic. Our results suggest that these variations have contributed to the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice, Northern Hemisphere warming, and changing Atlantic tropical storm activity, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These multidecadal variations are superimposed on long-term anthropogenic forcing trends that are the dominant factor in long-term Arctic sea ice loss and hemispheric warming.

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Figure 1: Time series of NAO and associated changes in ocean circulation.
Figure 2: Observed and simulated changes in Arctic sea ice extent.
Figure 3: Response of Northern Hemisphere extratropical (23°–90° N) surface air temperature to NAO heat flux forcing.
Figure 4: Probability distribution functions of changes in Atlantic tropical cyclone activity for the 1995–2014 period relative to the 1965–1994 period.


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We thank M. Harrison, H, Murakami and A. Wittenberg for valuable comments on a preliminary version of this manuscript.

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Authors and Affiliations



T.L.D. designed the study, conducted analyses and wrote the paper. F.Z. conducted the model simulations and contributed to the analyses. L.Z. conducted analyses of wind shear and decadal predictions. G.A.V. conducted analyses of changes in tropical storm activity and contributed ideas for analyses and interpretation of results. All helped to improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Thomas L. Delworth.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Delworth, T., Zeng, F., Vecchi, G. et al. The North Atlantic Oscillation as a driver of rapid climate change in the Northern Hemisphere. Nature Geosci 9, 509–512 (2016).

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