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Coupling between marine boundary layer clouds and summer-to-summer sea surface temperature variability over the North Atlantic and Pacific

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Climate modes of variability over the Atlantic and Pacific may be amplified by a positive feedback between sea-surface temperature (SST) and marine boundary layer clouds. However, it is well known that climate models poorly simulate this feedback. Does this deficiency contribute to model-to-model differences in the representation of climate modes of variability? Over both the North Atlantic and Pacific, typical summertime interannual to interdecadal SST variability exhibits horseshoe-like patterns of co-located anomalies of shortwave cloud radiative effect (CRE), low-level cloud fraction, SST, and estimated inversion strength over the subtropics and midlatitudes that are consistent with a positive cloud feedback. During winter over the midlatitudes, this feedback appears to be diminished. Models participating in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 5 that simulate a weak feedback between subtropical SST and shortwave CRE produce smaller and less realistic amplitudes of summertime SST and CRE variability over the northern oceans compared to models with a stronger feedback. The change in SST amplitude per unit change in CRE amplitude among the models and observations may be understood as the temperature response of the ocean mixed layer to a unit change in radiative flux over the course of a season. These results highlight the importance of boundary layer clouds in interannual to interdecadal atmosphere–ocean variability over the northern oceans during summer. The results also suggest that deficiencies in the simulation of these clouds in coupled climate models contribute to underestimation in their simulation of summer-to-summer SST variability.

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This study was funded by NOAA’s Climate Program Office, Climate Variability and Predictability Program Award NA14OAR4310278. The research was partly carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA. CERES data were obtained from the NASA Langley Research Center CERES ordering tool at ISCCP data were downloaded from the Atmospheric Science Data Center located at NASA Langley Research Center. Joel Norris kindly provided the corrected ISCCP data. ERA-Interim data were downloaded from the ECMWF data server at The authors thank both the World Climate Research Programme Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for CMIP, and the climate modeling groups for producing and making available their model output. Lastly, the authors thank three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments that led to improvements in the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Timothy A. Myers.

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Myers, T.A., Mechoso, C.R. & DeFlorio, M.J. Coupling between marine boundary layer clouds and summer-to-summer sea surface temperature variability over the North Atlantic and Pacific. Clim Dyn 50, 955–969 (2018).

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