Climatic Change

, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 301-326

First online:


  • JAMES W. HURRELLAffiliated withNational Center for Atmospheric Research
  • , HARRY VAN LOONAffiliated withNational Center for Atmospheric Research

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Large changes in the wintertime atmospheric circulation have occurred over the past two decades over the ocean basins of the Northern Hemisphere, and these changes have had a profound effect on regional distributions of surface temperature and precipitation. The changes over the North Pacific have been well documented and have contributed to increases in temperatures across Alaska and much of western North America and to decreases in sea surface temperatures over the central North Pacific. The variations over the North Atlantic are related to changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Over the past 130 years, the NAO has exhibited considerable variability at quasi-biennial and quasi-decadal time scales, and the latter have become especially pronounced the second half of this century. Since 1980, the NAO has tended to remain in one extreme phase and has accounted for a substantial part of the observed wintertime surface warming over Europe and downstream over Eurasia and cooling in the northwest Atlantic. Anomalies in precipitation, including dry wintertime conditions over southern Europe and the Mediterranean and wetter-than-normal conditions over northern Europe and Scandinavia since 1980, are also linked to the behavior of the NAO. Changes in the monthly mean flow over the Atlantic are accompanied by a northward shift in the storm tracks and associated synoptic eddy activity, and these changes help to reinforce and maintain the anomalous mean circulation in the upper troposphere. It is important that studies of trends in local climate records, such as those from high elevation sites, recognize the presence of strong regional patterns of change associated with phenomena like the NAO.