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Tropical influence on the North Pacific Oscillation drives winter extremes in North America


Since the turn of the twenty-first century, North America has experienced a number of record-breaking warm and cold winters. Thus, determining what causes these extremes is of great interest. Here we show that an eastward shift of the North Pacific Oscillation (NPO) in recent decades has caused its flip in phases to have more influence in causing abnormal warming and cooling over North America. Observations and climate models reveal the zonal displacement on an interdecadal timescale, and it is largely attributable to a Rossby wave response to the La Niña-like mean state of the tropical Pacific. This tropical influence affects the atmospheric mean baroclinicity over the extratropical North Pacific, which regulates the rate of available potential energy conversion that feeds the NPO. These results suggest that, as long as the NPO remains in the east, North America may continue to experience prolonged winter extremes.

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Data availability

All data used in this study are publicly available. NCEP R1, NOAA ERSST v4, GPCP v2.3 and 20CR V2 data can be found at the NOAA/OAR/ESRL Physical Sciences Division website ( CRU TS v4.00 is available at The model output from GFDL CM2.1 was downloaded from the website

Additional information

Journal peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Stephen Baxter, Yu Kosaka and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


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This research was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea (grant NRF-2018R1A6A1A08025520). M.-K.S. was supported by NRF-2018R1D1A1B07044112 and B.-M.K. was supported by Korea Meteorological Administration Research and Development Program (KMI2018-03810). S.-W.Y. was supported by NRF-2009-C1AAA001-2009-0093042 and NRF-2018R1A5A1024958.

Author information

M.-K.S. designed the research and performed analyses. H.-Y.J. assisted in analysing the data. M.-K.S. and C.Y. wrote the manuscript with discussion and feedback from B.-M.K., S.-W.Y. and Y.-S.C.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Baek-Min Kim or Changhyun Yoo.

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Fig. 1: Atmospheric circulation patterns of record warm and cold winters.
Fig. 2: Observed and simulated horizontal structure of the NPO by decade and corresponding correlation with SAT.
Fig. 3: Changes in atmospheric mean baroclinicity and its relation to the zonal position of the NPO.
Fig. 4: Changes in the tropical Pacific mean state corresponding to zonal shift of the NPO.
Fig. 5: Changes in the mean atmospheric baroclinicity over the North Pacific relevant to the tropical Pacific mean state in the model.