, Volume 9, Issue 6, pp 303-319

Decadal atmosphere-ocean variations in the Pacific

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Abstract

Considerable evidence has emerged of a substantial decade-long change in the north Pacific atmosphere and ocean lasting from about 1976 to 1988. Observed significant changes in the atmospheric circulation throughout the troposphere revealed a deeper and eastward shifted Aleutian low pressure system in the winter half year which advected warmer and moister air along the west coast of North America and into Alaska and colder air over the north Pacific. Consequently, there were increases in temperatures and sea surface temperatures (SSTs) along the west coast of North America and Alaska but decreases in SSTs over the central north Pacific, as well as changes in coastal rainfall and streamflow, and decreases in sea ice in the Bering Sea. Associated changes occurred in the surface wind stress, and, by inference, in the Sverdrup transport in the north Pacific Ocean. Changes in the monthly mean flow were accompanied by a southward shift in the storm tracks and associated synoptic eddy activity and in the surface ocean sensible and latent heat fluxes. In addition to the changes in the physical environment, the deeper Aleutian low increased the nutrient supply as seen through increases in total chlorophyll in the water column, phytoplankton and zooplankton. These changes, along with the altered ocean currents and temperatures, changed the migration patterns and increased the stock of many fish species. A north Pacific (NP) index is defined to measure the decadal variations, and the temporal variability of the index is explored on daily, annual, interannual and decadal time scales. The dominant atmosphere-ocean relation in the north Pacific is one where atmospheric changes lead SSTs by one to two months. However, strong ties are revealed with events in the tropical Pacific, with changes in tropical Pacific SSTs leading SSTs in the north Pacific by three months. Changes in the storm tracks in the north Pacific help to reinforce and maintain the anomalous circulation in the upper troposphere. A hypothesis is put forward outlining the tropical and extratropical realtionships which stresses the role of tropical forcing but with important feed-backs in the extratropics that serve to emphasize the decadal relative to interannual time scales. The Pacific decadal timescale variations are linked to recent changes in the frequency and intensity of El Niño versus La Nina events but whether climate change associated with “global warming” is a factor is an open question.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation