IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

8.4.6 Atlantic Multi-decadal Variability

The Atlantic Ocean exhibits considerable multi-decadal variability with time scales of about 50 to 100 years (see Chapter 3). This multi-decadal variability appears to be a robust feature of the surface climate in the Atlantic region, as shown by tree ring reconstructions for the last few centuries (e.g., Mann et al., 1998). Atlantic multi-decadal variability has a unique spatial pattern in the SST anomaly field, with opposite changes in the North and South Atlantic (e.g., Mestas-Nunez and Enfield, 1999; Latif et al., 2004), and this dipole pattern has been shown to be significantly correlated with decadal changes in Sahelian rainfall (Folland et al., 1986). Decadal variations in hurricane activity have also been linked to the multi-decadal SST variability in the Atlantic (Goldenberg et al., 2001). Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models simulate Atlantic multi-decadal variability (e.g., Delworth et al., 1993; Latif, 1998 and references therein; Knight et al., 2005), and the simulated space-time structure is consistent with that observed (Delworth and Mann, 2000). The multi-decadal variability simulated by the AOGCMs originates from variations in the MOC (see Section 8.3). The mechanisms, however, that control the variations in the MOC are fairly different across the ensemble of AOGCMs. In most AOGCMs, the variability can be understood as a damped oceanic eigenmode that is stochastically excited by the atmosphere. In a few other AOGCMs, however, coupled interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere appear to be more important. The relative roles of high- and low-latitude processes differ also from model to model. The variations in the Atlantic SST associated with the multi-decadal variability appear to be predictable a few decades ahead, which has been shown by potential (diagnostic) and classical (prognostic) predictability studies. Atmospheric quantities do not exhibit predictability at decadal time scales in these studies, which supports the picture of stochastically forced variability.