From Science Matters
By Ron Clutz
The best context for understanding decadal temperature changes comes from the world’s sea surface temperatures (SST), for several reasons:
- The ocean covers 71% of the globe and drives average temperatures;
- SSTs have a constant water content, (unlike air temperatures), so give a better reading of heat content variations;
- A major El Nino was the dominant climate feature in recent years.
HadSST is generally regarded as the best of the global SST data sets, and so the temperature story here comes from that source. Previously I used HadSST3 for these reports, but Hadley Centre has made HadSST4 the priority, and v.3 will no longer be updated. HadSST4 is the same as v.3, except that the older data from ship water intake was re-estimated to be generally lower temperatures than shown in v.3. The effect is that v.4 has lower average anomalies for the baseline period 1961-1990, thereby showing higher current anomalies than v.3. This analysis concerns more recent time periods and depends on very similar differentials as those from v.3 despite higher absolute anomaly values in v.4. More on what distinguishes HadSST3 and 4 from other SST products at the end. The user guide for HadSST4 is here.
The Current Context
The chart below shows SST monthly anomalies as reported in HadSST4 starting in 2015 through December 2022. A global cooling pattern is seen clearly in the Tropics since its peak in 2016, joined by NH and SH cycling downward since 2016.
Note that in 2015-2016 the Tropics and SH peaked in between two summer NH spikes. That pattern repeated in 2019-2020 with a lesser Tropics peak and SH bump, but with higher NH spikes. By end of 2020, cooler SSTs in all regions took the Global anomaly well below the mean for this period. In 2021 the summer NH summer spike was joined by warming in the Tropics but offset by a drop in SH SSTs, which raised the Global anomaly slightly over the mean.
Then in 2022, another strong NH summer spike peaked in August, but this time both the Tropic and SH were countervailing, resulting in only slight Global warming, later receding to the mean. Oct./Nov. temps dropped in NH and the Tropics took the Global anomaly below the average for this period. Now in December an uptick in SH has lifted the Global anomaly slightly above the mean.
A longer view of SSTs
The graph above is noisy, but the density is needed to see the seasonal patterns in the oceanic fluctuations. Previous posts focused on the rise and fall of the last El Nino starting in 2015. This post adds a longer view, encompassing the significant 1998 El Nino and since. The color schemes are retained for Global, Tropics, NH and SH anomalies. Despite the longer time frame, I have kept the monthly data (rather than yearly averages) because of interesting shifts between January and July.1995 is a reasonable (ENSO neutral) starting point prior to the first El Nino.
The sharp Tropical rise peaking in 1998 is dominant in the record, starting Jan. ’97 to pull up SSTs uniformly before returning to the same level Jan. ’99. There were strong cool periods before and after the 1998 El Nino event. Then SSTs in all regions returned to the mean in 2001-2.
SSTS fluctuate around the mean until 2007, when another, smaller ENSO event occurs. There is cooling 2007-8, a lower peak warming in 2009-10, following by cooling in 2011-12. Again SSTs are average 2013-14.
Now a different pattern appears. The Tropics cooled sharply to Jan 11, then rise steadily for 4 years to Jan 15, at which point the most recent major El Nino takes off. But this time in contrast to ’97-’99, the Northern Hemisphere produces peaks every summer pulling up the Global average. In fact, these NH peaks appear every July starting in 2003, growing stronger to produce 3 massive highs in 2014, 15 and 16. NH July 2017 was only slightly lower, and a fifth NH peak still lower in Sept. 2018.
The highest summer NH peaks came in 2019 and 2020, only this time the Tropics and SH were offsetting rather adding to the warming. (Note: these are high anomalies on top of the highest absolute temps in the NH.) Since 2014 SH has played a moderating role, offsetting the NH warming pulses. After September 2020 temps dropped off down until February 2021. Now in 2021-22 there are again summer NH spikes, but in 2022 moderated first by cooling Tropics and SH SSTs, now in October and November by deeper cooling in NH and Tropics.
What to make of all this? The patterns suggest that in addition to El Ninos in the Pacific driving the Tropic SSTs, something else is going on in the NH. The obvious culprit is the North Atlantic, since I have seen this sort of pulsing before. After reading some papers by David Dilley, I confirmed his observation of Atlantic pulses into the Arctic every 8 to 10 years.
But the peaks coming nearly every summer in HadSST require a different picture. Let’s look at August, the hottest month in the North Atlantic from the Kaplan dataset.
The AMO Index is from from Kaplan SST v2, the unaltered and not detrended dataset. By definition, the data are monthly average SSTs interpolated to a 5×5 grid over the North Atlantic basically 0 to 70N. The graph shows August warming began after 1992 up to 1998, with a series of matching years since, including 2020, dropping down in 2021. Because the N. Atlantic has partnered with the Pacific ENSO recently, let’s take a closer look at some AMO years in the last 2 decades.
This graph shows monthly AMO temps for some important years. The Peak years were 1998, 2010 and 2016, with the latter emphasized as the most recent. The other years show lesser warming, with 2007 emphasized as the coolest in the last 20 years. Note the red 2018 line is at the bottom of all these tracks. The heavy blue line shows that 2022 started warm, dropped to the bottom and stayed near the lower tracks. Note the strength of this summer’s warming pulse, in September peaking to nearly 24 Celsius, a new record for this dataset. In November the SSTs were closer to the middle.
The oceans are driving the warming this century. SSTs took a step up with the 1998 El Nino and have stayed there with help from the North Atlantic, and more recently the Pacific northern “Blob.” The ocean surfaces are releasing a lot of energy, warming the air, but eventually will have a cooling effect. The decline after 1937 was rapid by comparison, so one wonders: How long can the oceans keep this up? If the pattern of recent years continues, NH SST anomalies will likely decline in coming months, along with ENSO also weakening will probably determine a cooler outcome.
Footnote: Why Rely on HadSST4
HadSST is distinguished from other SST products because HadCRU (Hadley Climatic Research Unit) does not engage in SST interpolation, i.e. infilling estimated anomalies into grid cells lacking sufficient sampling in a given month. From reading the documentation and from queries to Met Office, this is their procedure.
HadSST4 imports data from gridcells containing ocean, excluding land cells. From past records, they have calculated daily and monthly average readings for each grid cell for the period 1961 to 1990. Those temperatures form the baseline from which anomalies are calculated.
In a given month, each gridcell with sufficient sampling is averaged for the month and then the baseline value for that cell and that month is subtracted, resulting in the monthly anomaly for that cell. All cells with monthly anomalies are averaged to produce global, hemispheric and tropical anomalies for the month, based on the cells in those locations. For example, Tropics averages include ocean grid cells lying between latitudes 20N and 20S.
Gridcells lacking sufficient sampling that month are left out of the averaging, and the uncertainty from such missing data is estimated. IMO that is more reasonable than inventing data to infill. And it seems that the Global Drifter Array displayed in the top image is providing more uniform coverage of the oceans than in the past.
Footnote Rare Triple Dip La Nina Likely This Winter
The unusual weather phenomenon might result in the snowiest season in years for some parts of the country.
The long-range winter forecast could be good news for skiers living in the certain parts of the U.S. and Canada. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the chance of a La Niña occurring this fall and early winter is 86 percent, and the main beneficiary is expected to be mountains in the Northwest and Northern Rockies.
If NOAA’s predictions pan out, this will be the third La Niña in a row—a rare phenomenon called a “Triple Dip La Niña.” Between now and 1950, only two Triple Dips have occurred.
Smith also notes that winters on the East Coast are similarly tricky to predict during La Niña years. “In the West, you’re simply looking for above-average precipitation, which typically translates to above-average snowfall, but in the East, you have temperature to worry about as well … that adds another complication.” In other words, increased precip could lead to more rain if the temperatures aren’t cooperative.
The presence of a La Niña doesn’t always translate to higher snowfall in the North, either, as evidenced by last ski season, which saw few powder days.
However, in consecutive La Niña triplets, one winter usually involves above-average snowfall. While this historical pattern isn’t tied to any documented meteorological function, it could mean that the odds of a snowy 2022’-’23 season are higher, given the previous two La Niñas didn’t deliver the goods.