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

TS.3.1.2 Spatial Distribution of Changes in Temperature, Circulation and Related Variables

Surface temperatures over land regions have warmed at a faster rate than over the oceans in both hemispheres. Longer records now available show significantly faster rates of warming over land than ocean in the past two decades (about 0.27°C vs. 0.13°C per decade). {3.2}

The warming in the last 30 years is widespread over the globe, and is greatest at higher northern latitudes. The greatest warming has occurred in the NH winter (DJF) and spring (MAM). Average arctic temperatures have been increasing at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world in the past 100 years. However, arctic temperatures are highly variable. A slightly longer arctic warm period, almost as warm as the present, was observed from 1925 to 1945, but its geographical distribution appears to have been different from the recent warming since its extent was not global. {3.2}

There is evidence for long-term changes in the large-scale atmospheric circulation, such as a poleward shift and strengthening of the westerly winds. Regional climate trends can be very different from the global average, reflecting changes in the circulations and interactions of the atmosphere and ocean and the other components of the climate system. Stronger mid-latitude westerly wind maxima have occurred in both hemispheres in most seasons from at least 1979 to the late 1990s, and poleward displacements of corresponding Atlantic and southern polar front jet streams have been documented. The westerlies in the NH increased from the 1960s to the 1990s but have since returned to values close to the long-term average. The increased strength of the westerlies in the NH changes the flow from oceans to continents, and is a major factor in the observed winter changes in storm tracks and related patterns of precipitation and temperature trends at mid- and high-latitudes. Analyses of wind and significant wave height support reanalysis-based evidence for changes in NH extratropical storms from the start of the reanalysis record in the late 1970s until the late 1990s. These changes are accompanied by a tendency towards stronger winter polar vortices throughout the troposphere and lower stratosphere. {3.2, 3.5}

Many regional climate changes can be described in terms of preferred patterns of climate variability and therefore as changes in the occurrence of indices that characterise the strength and phase of these patterns. The importance, over all time scales, of fluctuations in the westerlies and storm tracks in the North Atlantic has often been noted, and these fluctuations are described by the NAO (see Box TS.2 for an explanation of this and other preferred patterns). The characteristics of fluctuations in the zonally averaged westerlies in the two hemispheres have more recently been described by their respective ‘annular modes’, the Northern and Southern Annular Modes (NAM and SAM). The observed changes can be expressed as a shift of the circulation towards the structure associated with one sign of these preferred patterns. The increased mid-latitude westerlies in the North Atlantic can be largely viewed as reflecting either NAO or NAM changes; multi-decadal variability is also evident in the Atlantic, both in the atmosphere and the ocean. In the SH, changes in circulation related to an increase in the SAM from the 1960s to the present are associated with strong warming over the Antarctic Peninsula and, to a lesser extent, cooling over parts of continental Antarctica. Changes have also been observed in ocean-atmosphere interactions in the Pacific. The ENSO is the dominant mode of global-scale variability on interannual time scales although there have been times when it is less apparent. The 1976–1977 climate shift, related to the phase change in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) towards more El Niño events and changes in the evolution of ENSO, has affected many areas, including most tropical monsoons. For instance, over North America, ENSO and Pacific-North American (PNA) teleconnection-related changes appear to have led to contrasting changes across the continent, as the western part has warmed more than the eastern part, while the latter has become cloudier and wetter. There is substantial low-frequency atmospheric variability in the Pacific sector over the 20th century, with extended periods of weakened (1900–1924; 1947–1976) as well as strengthened (1925–1946; 1977–2003) circulation. {3.2, 3.5, 3.6}

Changes in extremes of temperature are consistent with warming. Observations show widespread reductions in the number of frost days in mid-latitude regions, increases in the number of warm extremes (warmest 10% of days or nights) and a reduction in the number of daily cold extremes (coldest 10% of days or nights) (see Box TS.5). The most marked changes are for cold nights, which have declined over the 1951 to 2003 period for all regions where data are available (76% of the land). {3.8}

Heat waves have increased in duration beginning in the latter half of the 20th century. The record-breaking heat wave over western and central Europe in the summer of 2003 is an example of an exceptional recent extreme. That summer (JJA) was the warmest since comparable instrumental records began around 1780 (1.4°C above the previous warmest in 1807). Spring drying of the land surface over Europe was an important factor in the occurrence of the extreme 2003 temperatures. Evidence suggests that heat waves have also increased in frequency and duration in other locations. The very strong correlation between observed dryness and high temperatures over land in the tropics during summer highlights the important role moisture plays in moderating climate. {3.8, 3.9}

There is insufficient evidence to determine whether trends exist in such events as tornadoes, hail, lightning and dust storms which occur at small spatial scales. {3.8}

Box TS.2: Patterns (Modes) of Climate Variability

Analysis of atmospheric and climatic variability has shown that a significant component of it can be described in terms of fluctuations in the amplitude and sign of indices of a relatively small number of preferred patterns of variability. Some of the best known of these are:

  • El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a coupled fluctuation in the atmosphere and the equatorial Pacific Ocean, with preferred time scales of two to about seven years. ENSO is often measured by the difference in surface pressure anomalies between Tahiti and Darwin and the SSTs in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. ENSO has global teleconnections.
  • North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), a measure of the strength of the Icelandic Low and the Azores High, and of the westerly winds between them, mainly in winter. The NAO has associated fluctuations in the storm track, temperature and precipitation from the North Atlantic into Eurasia (see Box TS.2, Figure 1).

Positive Phase of NAO and NAM

Box TS.2 Figure 1

Box TS.2, Figure 1. A schematic of the changes associated with the positive phase of the NAO and NAM. The changes in pressure and winds are shown, along with precipitation changes. Warm colours indicate areas that are warmer than normal and blue indicates areas that are cooler than normal.

  • Northern Annular Mode (NAM), a winter fluctuation in the amplitude of a pattern characterised by low surface pressure in the Arctic and strong mid-latitude westerlies. The NAM has links with the northern polar vortex and hence the stratosphere.
  • Southern Annular Mode (SAM), the fluctuation of a pattern with low antarctic surface pressure and strong mid-latitude westerlies, analogous to the NAM, but present year round.
  • Pacific-North American (PNA) pattern, an atmospheric large-scale wave pattern featuring a sequence of tropospheric high- and low-pressure anomalies stretching from the subtropical west Pacific to the east coast of North America.
  • Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a measure of the SSTs in the North Pacific that has a very strong correlation with the North Pacific Index (NPI) measure of the depth of the Aleutian Low. However, it has a signature throughout much of the Pacific.

The extent to which all these preferred patterns of variability can be considered to be true modes of the climate system is a topic of active research. However, there is evidence that their existence can lead to larger-amplitude regional responses to forcing than would otherwise be expected. In particular, a number of the observed 20th-century climate changes can be viewed in terms of changes in these patterns. It is therefore important to test the ability of climate models to simulate them (see Section TS.4, Box TS.7) and to consider the extent to which observed changes related to these patterns are linked to internal variability or to anthropogenic climate change. {3.6, 8.4}