, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 135-162

Decadal-scale climate variability in the tropical and North Pacific during the 1970s and 1980s: observations and model results

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Abstract

An abrupt change in the large-scale boreal winter circulation pattern over the North Pacific was observed during the mid-1970s. Most notably, this change was marked by a southward shift and intensification of the Aleutian Low and prevailing westerlies over the mid-latitude central and eastern Pacific. Associated changes in diverse North Pacific climatological, hydrological, and biological variables have been noted by numerous researchers. Intriguingly, the timing of these changes in the extra-tropical circulation was coincident with a shift in the background state of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system over the tropical Pacific. These changes include increases in SST over broad regions of the central and eastern tropical Pacific and an eastward displacement of the region of persistent convection in the western Pacific. This paper presents a variety of observed data and model results to describe the climate shift, and to understand some of the links within the coupled climate system that produced it. Five main findings are emphasized: (1) evidence of abrupt, simultaneous, and apparently related changes can be found in many fields and in many model results; the climate shift is not an artifact, (2) over the tropical Pacific the climate change represents a shift in the state of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system, some aspects of which resemble features associated with El Niño episodes. However, the shift in state is not well characterized as due to a change in the frequency of intensity of El Ni~no episodes; it is better described as a change in background mean state, (3) when forced with observed SSTs, both a very simple atmospheric model and a full general circulation model (GCM) qualitatively simulate aspects of the decadal-scale shift over the tropical Pacific, (4) when forced with observed surface wind stress, two ocean models of the tropical Pacific, in which surface heat fluxes are parameterized as Newtonian damping, reproduce some aspects of the near-equatorial decadal SST signal. However, the models do not reproduce the large changes in SST observed at higher latitudes of the tropical Pacific, suggesting that altered surface heat fluxes dominated in producing these changes, and (5) an important new finding of this study is the success of a GCM in reproducing important aspects of the observed mid-1970s shift in winter northern hemisphere circulation. Comparative analyses of the observed and GCM simulated circulation suggest the altered patterns of tropical Pacific SST and convection were important in forcing the changes in the mid-latitude circulation, a finding corroborated by recent GCM experiments.