Climate Dynamics

, Volume 37, Issue 11–12, pp 2495–2509 | Cite as

Evaluating the potential for statistical decadal predictions of sea surface temperatures with a perfect model approach

  • Ed HawkinsEmail author
  • Jon Robson
  • Rowan Sutton
  • Doug Smith
  • Noel Keenlyside


We explore the potential for making statistical decadal predictions of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in a perfect model analysis, with a focus on the Atlantic basin. Various statistical methods (Lagged correlations, Linear Inverse Modelling and Constructed Analogue) are found to have significant skill in predicting the internal variability of Atlantic SSTs for up to a decade ahead in control integrations of two different global climate models (GCMs), namely HadCM3 and HadGEM1. Statistical methods which consider non-local information tend to perform best, but which is the most successful statistical method depends on the region considered, GCM data used and prediction lead time. However, the Constructed Analogue method tends to have the highest skill at longer lead times. Importantly, the regions of greatest prediction skill can be very different to regions identified as potentially predictable from variance explained arguments. This finding suggests that significant local decadal variability is not necessarily a prerequisite for skillful decadal predictions, and that the statistical methods are capturing some of the dynamics of low-frequency SST evolution. In particular, using data from HadGEM1, significant skill at lead times of 6–10 years is found in the tropical North Atlantic, a region with relatively little decadal variability compared to interannual variability. This skill appears to come from reconstructing the SSTs in the far north Atlantic, suggesting that the more northern latitudes are optimal for SST observations to improve predictions. We additionally explore whether adding sub-surface temperature data improves these decadal statistical predictions, and find that, again, it depends on the region, prediction lead time and GCM data used. Overall, we argue that the estimated prediction skill motivates the further development of statistical decadal predictions of SSTs as a benchmark for current and future GCM-based decadal climate predictions.


Decadal prediction Atlantic SSTs Statistical methods Predictability 



We thank Chun-Kit Ho, Fiona Underwood, Len Shaffrey, Dan Hodson and Manoj Joshi for useful suggestions. The two anonymous reviewers provided valuable comments which helped improve the paper. The authors are supported by NCAS-Climate (EH, JR, RS) and the NERC VALOR project (JR). The research leading to these results has received funding (EH, NK) from the European Community’s 7th framework programme (FP7/2007–2013) under grant agreement No. GA212643 (THOR: ‘Thermohaline Overturning—at Risk’, 2008–2012).

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ed Hawkins
    • 1
  • Jon Robson
    • 1
  • Rowan Sutton
    • 1
  • Doug Smith
    • 2
  • Noel Keenlyside
    • 3
  1. 1.NCAS-Climate, Department of MeteorologyUniversity of ReadingReadingUK
  2. 2.Met Office Hadley CentreExeterUK
  3. 3.IFM-GEOMARKielGermany

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