Recent climatic trends in the tropical Atlantic

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Abstract

A homogeneous monthly data set of sea surface temperature (SST) and pseudo wind stress based on in situ observations is used to investigate the climatic trends over the tropical Atlantic during the last five decades (1964–2012). After a decrease of SST by about 1 °C during 1964–1975, most apparent in the northern tropical region, the entire tropical basin warmed up. That warming was the most substantial (>1 °C) in the eastern tropical ocean and in the longitudinal band of the intertropical convergence zone. Surprisingly, the trade wind system also strengthened over the peirod 1964–2012. Complementary information extracted from other observational data sources confirms the simultaneity of SST warming and the strengthening of the surface winds. Examining data sets of surface heat flux during the last few decades for the same region, we find that the SST warming was not a consequence of atmospheric heat flux forcing. Conversely, we suggest that long-term SST warming drives changes in atmosphere parameters at the sea surface, most notably an increase in latent heat flux, and that an acceleration of the hydrological cycle induces a strengthening of the trade winds and an acceleration of the Hadley circulation. These trends are also accompanied by rising sea levels and upper ocean heat content over similar multi-decadal time scales in the tropical Atlantic. Though more work is needed to fully understand these long term trends, especially what happens from the mid-1970’s, it is likely that changes in ocean circulation involving some combination of the Atlantic meridional overtuning circulation and the subtropical cells are required to explain the observations.

This paper is a contribution to the special issue on tropical Atlantic variability and coupled model climate biases that have been the focus of the recently completed Tropical Atlantic Climate Experiment (TACE), an international CLIVAR program (http://www.clivar.org/organization/atlantic/tace). This special issue is coordinated by William Johns, Peter Brandt, and Ping Chang, representatives of the TACE Observations and TACE Modeling and Synthesis working groups.
Jacques Servain was visiting scientist at Departamento de Oceanografia, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Recife-PE, Brazil during the period October to December 2013.