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Tropical pacific forcing of a 1998–1999 climate shift: observational analysis and climate model results for the boreal spring season

Lyon, Bradfield, Barnston, Anthony G., DeWitt, David G.
Climate dynamics 2014 v.43 no.3-4 pp. 893-909
atmospheric circulation, climate, climate models, drought, global warming, linear models, rain, simulation models, spring, surface temperature, wind, Asia, Australia, Eastern Africa, United States
Observational data and climate model simulations and experiments are utilized to document an abrupt shift in Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and associated atmospheric conditions, which occurred in 1998–1999. Emphasis is placed on the March–May (MAM) season, as the motivation for the work is to extend a recent study that reported an abrupt decline in East African MAM rainfall at that time. An empirical orthogonal function analysis of MAM SSTs over the last century following the removal of the concurrent influence of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and global warming trend by linear regression reveals a pattern of multidecadal variability in the Pacific similar to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Examination of MAM precipitation variations since 1940 indicates, among other findings, that recurrent drought events since 1999 in East Africa, central-southwest Asia, parts of eastern Australia and the southwestern US are all regional manifestations of a global scale multidecadal pattern. Associated shifts in the low-level wind field and upper-level stationary waves are discussed. Simulations using an atmospheric climate model forced with observed, global SSTs capture many of the salient precipitation and atmospheric circulation features associated with the observed shift. Further, when the model is forced only with observed SSTs from the tropical Pacific it also captures many of the observed atmospheric changes, including the abrupt shift in 1999. The results point to the fundamental role played by the tropical Pacific in driving the response to multidecadal variability of SSTs in the basin and provide important context for recent seasonal climate extremes in several regions of the globe.