On the future zonal contrasts of equatorial Pacific climate: Perspectives from Observations, Simulations, and Theories

Sukyoung Lee, Michelle L’Heureux, Andrew T. Wittenberg, Richard Seager, Paul A. O’Gorman, Nathaniel C. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations

Abstract

Changes in the zonal gradients of sea surface temperature (SST) across the equatorial Pacific have major consequences for global climate. Therefore, accurate future projections of these tropical Pacific gradients are of paramount importance for climate mitigation and adaptation. Yet there is evidence of a dichotomy between observed historical gradient trends and those simulated by climate models. Observational records appear to show a “La Niña-like” strengthening of the zonal SST gradient over the past century, whereas most climate model simulations project “El Niño-like” changes toward a weaker gradient. Here, studies of these equatorial Pacific climate trends are reviewed, focusing first on data analyses and climate model simulations, then on theories that favor either enhanced or weakened zonal SST gradients, and then on notable consequences of the SST gradient trends. We conclude that the present divergence between the historical model simulations and the observed trends likely either reflects an error in the model’s forced response, or an underestimate of the multi-decadal internal variability by the models. A better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of both forced response and natural variability is needed to reduce the uncertainty. Finally, we offer recommendations for future research directions and decision-making for climate risk mitigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number82
Journalnpj Climate and Atmospheric Science
Volume5
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Atmospheric Science

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