Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Swings In North Atlantic Oscillation Variability Linked To Climate Warming


ScienceDaily (Jan. 13, 2009) — Using a 218-year-long temperature record from a Bermuda brain coral, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have created the first marine-based reconstruction showing the long-term behavior of one of the most important drivers of climate fluctuations in the North Atlantic.
The research team found the variability of the NAO decade-to-decade (multi-decadal scale) has been larger, swinging more wildly, during the late twentieth century than in the early 1800s, suggesting that variability is linked to the mean temperature of the Northern Hemisphere. This confirms variability previously reported in past terrestrial reconstructions.

“When the Industrial Revolution begins and atmospheric temperature becomes warmer, the NAO takes on a much stronger pattern in longer-term behavior,” said Goodkin. “That was suspected before in the instrumental records, but this is the first time it has been documented in records from both the ocean and the atmosphere.”
The North Atlantic Oscillation is described by the NAO index, calculated as a weighted difference between the polar low and the subtropical high during the winter season. (For more information about the NAO index, see animation.) In a positive phase, both the low-pressure zone over Iceland and high pressure over the Azores are intensified, resulting in changes in the strength, incidence, and pathway of winter storms crossing the Atlantic. In a negative phase, a weak subtropical high and a weak Icelandic low results in fewer and weaker winter storms crossing on a more west-east pathway.

The NAO index varies from year to year, but also exhibits a tendency to remain in one phase for intervals lasting more than a decade. An unusually long period of positive phase between 1970-2000 led to the suggestion that global warming was affecting the behavior of the NAO.

“Anthropogenic (human-related) warming does not appear to be altering whether the NAO is in a positive or negative phase at multi-decadal time scales,” said WHOI paleoclimatologist Konrad Hughen. “It does seem to be increasing variability. Clearly, this has implications for the future.”

“As temperatures get warmer, there’s potential for more violent swings of the NAO — the phases becoming even more positive and even more negative,” Hughen added. “If the NAO locks more into these patterns, intense storms will become more intense and droughts will become more severe.”

The climatic influence of the NAO extends from the eastern United States to Western Europe, impacting human activities such as shipping, oil drilling, fisheries, hydroelectric power generation and coastal management. Improving the ability to predict shifts in the phase and intensity of the NAO is a prerequisite to mitigating the economic impacts of future climate change.

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