Climate Dynamics

, Volume 15, Issue 10, pp 751–772

The global distribution of sources of atmospheric decadal variability and mechanisms over the tropical Pacific and southern North America


  • D. P. Rowell
    • Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, Meteorological Office, London Road, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 2SY, UK E-mail:
  • F. W. Zwiers
    • Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, Victoria, Canada

DOI: 10.1007/s003820050314

Cite this article as:
Rowell, D. & Zwiers, F. Climate Dynamics (1999) 15: 751. doi:10.1007/s003820050314


 Understanding natural atmospheric decadal variability is an important element of climate research, and here we investigate the geographic and seasonal diversity in the balance between its competing sources. Data are provided by an ensemble of multi-decadal atmospheric general circulation model experiments, forced by observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs), and verified against observations. First, the nature of internal atmospheric variability is studied. By assessing its spectral character, we refute the idea that internal modes may persist or oscillate on multi-annual time-scales, either through mechanisms purely internal to the atmosphere, or via coupling to the land surface; instead, they behave as a white noise process. Second, and more importantly, the role of oceanic forcing, relative to internal variability, is investigated by extending the ‘analysis of variance’ technique to the frequency domain. Significance testing and confidence intervals are also discussed. In the tropics, atmospheric decadal variability is usually dominated by oceanic forcing, although for some regions less so than at interannual time-scales. A moderate oceanic impact is also found for some extratropical regions in some seasons. Verification against observed mean sea-level pressure (MSLP) data suggests that many of these influences are realistic, although some model errors are also revealed. In other mid- and high-latitude regions, local simulated decadal variability is dominated by random processes, i.e. the integrated effects of chaotic weather systems. Third, we focus on the mechanisms of decadal variability in two specific regions (where the model is well behaved). Over the tropical Pacific, the relative impact of SSTs on decadal MSLP is strongly seasonal such that it peaks in September to November (SON). This is explained by noting that the model atmosphere is responsive to SSTs a little farther west in SON than it is in other seasons, and here it picks up relatively more decadal power from the ocean (the western Pacific being less dominated by ENSO time-scales), causing atmospheric ‘signal-to-noise ratios’ to be enhanced at decadal timescales in SON. Over southern North America, a strong SST impact is found in summer and autumn, resulting in an upward trend of MSLP over recent decades. We suggest this is caused by decadal SST variability in the Caribbean (and to some extent the tropical northeast Pacific in summer), which induces anomalous convective heating over these regions and hence the wider MSLP response.

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1999