Climatic Change

, Volume 31, Issue 2–4, pp 427–453 | Cite as

Atmospheric circulation climate changes

  • Kevin E. Trenberth


The role of the atmospheric circulation in climate change is examined. A review is given of the information available in the past record on the atmosheric circulation and its role in climate change, firstly at the surface via sea level pressure in both the northern and southern hemispheres and secondly for the free atmosphere. As with most climate information, the climate record is compromised by non-physical inhomogeneities arising from changes in observing and analyzing techniques and changes in data coverage. Problems with and threats to the rawinsonde network are discussed. Global analyses produced by the operational centers, U.S. National Meteorological Center (NMC) and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), for weather forecasting purposes contain many discontinuous changes in the analyses arising from improvements in the system used to produce them. A discussion is given of the prospects for and motivation behind an activity known as ‘reanalysis’ in which the historical data are reanalyzed using a state-of-the-art system that is held constant for the entire record. The only sources of spurious change then are the changes in the observing system, such as the introduction of space-based observations. Recommendations are made on needed actions for better understanding and monitoring climate change.

The role of the atmospheric circulation and the strong links to other variables such as temperature, precipitation and wind are established and illustrated with a survey of decadal variability, the evidence for it, and the way in which the observed atmospheric circulation is involved in the Pacific and Atlantic sectors. The importance of teleconnections is stressed, especially in the winter half year, for understanding local climate change. The likelihood that changes will be manifested in the frequency and intensity of preferred modes of behavior in the atmosphere, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and Pacific-North American teleconnection patterns, rather than in changes in the modes is also emphasized. The recently observed climate changes and the tendency for an unprecedented prolonged El Niño are interpreted in this framework. The key coupled atmosphere-ocean character of decadal variability is noted with the atmosphere providing the spatial scales, the ocean the memory, but also with the need for collaborative, as opposed to destructive, interactions through the atmospheric circulation.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kevin E. Trenberth
    • 1
  1. 1.National Center for Atmospheric ResearchBoulderUSA

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