Ocean versus atmosphere control on western European wintertime temperature variability

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Using a novel Lagrangian approach, we assess the relative roles of the atmosphere and ocean in setting interannual variability in western European wintertime temperatures. We compute sensible and latent heat fluxes along atmospheric particle trajectories backtracked in time from four western European cities, using a Lagrangian atmospheric dispersion model driven with meteorological reanalysis data. The material time rate of change in potential temperature and the surface turbulent fluxes computed along the trajectory show a high degree of correlation, revealing a dominant control of ocean–atmosphere heat and moisture exchange in setting heat flux variability for atmospheric particles en route to western Europe. We conduct six idealised simulations in which one or more aspects of the climate system is held constant at climatological values and these idealised simulations are compared with a control simulation, in which all components of the climate system vary realistically. The results from these idealised simulations suggest that knowledge of atmospheric pathways is essential for reconstructing the interannual variability in heat flux and western European wintertime temperature, and that variability in these trajectories alone is sufficient to explain at least half of the internannual flux variability. Our idealised simulations also expose an important role for sea surface temperature in setting decadal scale variability of air–sea heat fluxes along the Lagrangian pathways. These results are consistent with previous studies showing that air–sea heat flux variability is driven by the atmosphere on interannual time scales over much of the North Atlantic, whereas the SST plays a leading role on longer time scales. Of particular interest is that the atmospheric control holds for the integrated fluxes along 10-day back trajectories from western Europe on an interannual time scale, despite that many of these trajectories pass over the Gulf Stream and its North Atlantic Current extension, regions where ocean dynamics influence air–sea heat exchange even on a very short time scale.

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Climate Dynamics