Surface-temperature trends and variability in the low-latitude North Atlantic since 1552

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Sea surface temperature variability in the North Atlantic Ocean recorded since about 1850 has been ascribed to a natural multidecadal oscillation superimposed on a background warming trend1,2,3,4,5,6. It has been suggested that the multidecadal variability may be a persistent feature6,7,8, raising the possibility that the associated climate impacts may be predictable9. However, our understanding of the multidecadal ocean variability before the instrumental record is based on interpretations of high-latitude terrestrial proxy records7,8. Here we present an absolutely dated and annually resolved record of sea surface temperature from the Bahamas, based on a 440-year time series of coral growth rates. The reconstruction indicates that temperatures were as warm as today from about 1552 to 1570, then cooled by about 1 C from 1650 to 1730 before warming until the present. Our estimates of background variability suggest that much of the warming since 1900 was driven by anthropogenic forcing. Interdecadal variability with a period of 15–25 years is superimposed on most of the record, but multidecadal variability becomes significant only after 1730. We conclude that the multidecadal variability in sea surface temperatures in the low-latitude western Atlantic Ocean may not be persistent, potentially making accurate decadal climate forecasts more difficult to achieve.

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Figure 1: Calibration and verification of the coral-based SST proxy.
Figure 2: Northern Hemisphere and Atlantic temperature variability since 1550.
Figure 3: Externally and internally forced SST variability
Figure 4: Spectral analysis of internal SST variability.


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We thank T. Crowley, P. Huybers, P. Chang, Y. Kwon, J. Woodruff, J. T. Farrar, N. Goodkin and G. Hegerl for discussion. We also thank D. Ketten and J. Arruda for CAT scan support and R. Petitt for initial growth measurements. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation, WHOI’s Ocean and Climate Change Institute, WHOI’s Ocean Life Institute, award No. USA-0002, made by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and the Inter-American Institute Global Change Research.

Author information

C.S., A.L.C. and D.W.O. designed the experiment. C.S. collected and analysed the data, and wrote the paper. C.S., A.L.C. and D.W.O. interpreted the data, discussed their implications and contributed to the manuscript. R.B.H. and J.E.C. provided sample material and manuscript comments.

Correspondence to Casey Saenger.

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