Recent multidecadal strengthening of the Walker circulation across the tropical Pacific

Michelle L. L'Heureux, Sukyoung Lee, Bradfield Lyon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

149 Scopus citations

Abstract

The Pacific Walker circulation is a large overturning cell that spans the tropical Pacific Ocean, characterized by rising motion (lower sea-level pressure) over Indonesia and sinking motion (higher sea level-pressure) over the eastern Pacific. Fluctuations in the Walker circulation reflect changes in the location and strength of tropical heating, so related circulation anomalies have global impacts. On interannual timescales, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation accounts for much of the variability in the Walker circulation, but there is considerable interest in longer-term trends and their drivers, including anthropogenic climate change. Here, we examine sea-level pressure trends in ten different data sets drawn from reanalysis, reconstructions and in situ measurements for 1900-2011. We show that periods with fewer in situ measurements result in lower signal-to-noise ratios, making assessments of sea-level pressure trends largely unsuitable before about the 1950s. Multidecadal trends evaluated since 1950 reveal statistically significant, negative values over the Indonesian region, with weaker, positive trends over the eastern Pacific. The overall trend towards a stronger, La Niña-like Walker circulation is nearly concurrent with the observed increase in global average temperatures, thereby justifying closer scrutiny of how the Pacific climate system has changed in the historical record.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)571-576
Number of pages6
JournalNature Climate Change
Volume3
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 1 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)

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