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Model tropical Atlantic biases underpin diminished Pacific decadal variability

Abstract

Pacific trade winds have displayed unprecedented strengthening in recent decades1. This strengthening has been associated with east Pacific sea surface cooling2 and the early twenty-first-century slowdown in global surface warming2,3, amongst a host of other substantial impacts4,5,6,7,8,9. Although some climate models produce the timing of these recently observed trends10, they all fail to produce the trend magnitude2,11,12. This may in part be related to the apparent model underrepresentation of low-frequency Pacific Ocean variability and decadal wind trends2,11,12,13 or be due to a misrepresentation of a forced response1,14,15,16 or a combination of both. An increasingly prominent connection between the Pacific and Atlantic basins has been identified as a key driver of this strengthening of the Pacific trade winds12,17,18,19,20. Here we use targeted climate model experiments to show that combining the recent Atlantic warming trend with the typical climate model bias leads to a substantially underestimated response for the Pacific Ocean wind and surface temperature. The underestimation largely stems from a reduction and eastward shift of the atmospheric heating response to the tropical Atlantic warming trend. This result suggests that the recent Pacific trends and model decadal variability may be better captured by models with improved mean-state climatologies.

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Fig. 1: Trends (1992–2011) of PARCP SST, SLP, wind stress and precipitation.
Fig. 2: Changes of AGCM simulated global Walker circulation.
Fig. 3: Changes of AGCM simulated precipitation.
Fig. 4: Schematic representation of the AGCM interbasin links and modelled surface flux changes.
Fig. 5: Trends (1992–2011) of PARCP SST, wind stress and precipitation.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC), including the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate System Science (ARC grant CE110001028). M.F.S. was supported by the NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, administered by UCAR’s Cooperative Programs for the Advancement of Earth System Sciences (CPAESS). J.B.K. and M.C. were supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (grant number NE/N005783/1). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP), and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making their model output available. S.M. also thanks D. Dommenget for discussions during the early stages of this work.

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S.M. conceived the study and wrote the initial manuscript draft. M.F.S. conducted the AGCM and partially coupled model simulations. S.M. and J.B.K. analysed the model output and generated figures. All authors contributed to interpreting the results, discussion of the associated dynamics and refinement of the paper.

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Correspondence to Shayne McGregor.

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McGregor, S., Stuecker, M.F., Kajtar, J.B. et al. Model tropical Atlantic biases underpin diminished Pacific decadal variability. Nature Clim Change 8, 493–498 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0163-4

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