Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Decadal-scale climate variability in the tropical and North Pacific during the 1970s and 1980s: observations and model results


An abrupt change in the large-scale boreal winter circulation pattern over the North Pacific was observed during the mid-1970s. Most notably, this change was marked by a southward shift and intensification of the Aleutian Low and prevailing westerlies over the mid-latitude central and eastern Pacific. Associated changes in diverse North Pacific climatological, hydrological, and biological variables have been noted by numerous researchers. Intriguingly, the timing of these changes in the extra-tropical circulation was coincident with a shift in the background state of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system over the tropical Pacific. These changes include increases in SST over broad regions of the central and eastern tropical Pacific and an eastward displacement of the region of persistent convection in the western Pacific. This paper presents a variety of observed data and model results to describe the climate shift, and to understand some of the links within the coupled climate system that produced it. Five main findings are emphasized: (1) evidence of abrupt, simultaneous, and apparently related changes can be found in many fields and in many model results; the climate shift is not an artifact, (2) over the tropical Pacific the climate change represents a shift in the state of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system, some aspects of which resemble features associated with El Niño episodes. However, the shift in state is not well characterized as due to a change in the frequency of intensity of El Ni~no episodes; it is better described as a change in background mean state, (3) when forced with observed SSTs, both a very simple atmospheric model and a full general circulation model (GCM) qualitatively simulate aspects of the decadal-scale shift over the tropical Pacific, (4) when forced with observed surface wind stress, two ocean models of the tropical Pacific, in which surface heat fluxes are parameterized as Newtonian damping, reproduce some aspects of the near-equatorial decadal SST signal. However, the models do not reproduce the large changes in SST observed at higher latitudes of the tropical Pacific, suggesting that altered surface heat fluxes dominated in producing these changes, and (5) an important new finding of this study is the success of a GCM in reproducing important aspects of the observed mid-1970s shift in winter northern hemisphere circulation. Comparative analyses of the observed and GCM simulated circulation suggest the altered patterns of tropical Pacific SST and convection were important in forcing the changes in the mid-latitude circulation, a finding corroborated by recent GCM experiments.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Argell JK (1990) Variation in global tropospheric temperature after adjustment for the El Niño influence, 1958–1989. Geophys Res Lett 17:1097–1110

  2. Arkin PA (1984) An examination of the Southern Oscillation in the upper tropospheric tropical and subtropical wind field. PhD dissertation, Univ Maryland, pp 223–224

  3. Barbour P (1986) Construction of a monthly sea surface temperature for the global ocean: 1959–1979. Scripps Inst of Oceanog Ref No 86–26, Clim Res Grp, Scripps Inst of Oceanog, Univ of Calif San Diego

  4. Barnett TP (1977) The principal time and space scales of the Pacific tradewind fields. J Atmos Sci 34:221–236

  5. Barnett TP (1983) Interaction of the monsoon and Pacific tradewind system at interannual time scales. I. The equatorial zone. Mon Weather Rev 111:756–773

  6. Barnett TP (1984) Interaction of the monsoon and Pacific tradewind system at interannual time scales. III. A partial anatomy of the Southern Oscillation. Mon Weather Rev 112:2380–2387

  7. Barnett TP, Preisendorfer R (1987) Origins and levels of monthly and seasonal forecast skill for United States surface air temperatures determined by canonical correlation analysis. Mon Weather Rev 115:1825–1850

  8. Barnett TP, Dümenil L, Schlese U, Roeckner E, Latif M (1989) The effect of Eurasian snow cover on regional and global climate variations. J Atmos Sci 46:661–685

  9. Barnett TP, Latif M, Kirk E, Roeckner E (1991) On ENSO physics. J Clim 4:487–515

  10. Barnett TP, Latif M, Graham N, Pazan S, White W (1993) ENSO and ENSO-related predictability. Part I. Prediction of equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures with a hybrid coupled ocean-atmosphere model. J Clim 6:1545–1566

  11. Bengtsson L, Schlese U, Roeckner E, Latif M, Barnett T, Graham N (1993) A two-tired approach to long-range climate prediction. Science 261:1026–1029

  12. Bjerknes J (1969) Atmospheric teleconnections from the equatorial Pacific. Mon Weather Rev 97:163–172

  13. Bretherton CS, Smith C, Wallace JM (1992) An intercomparison of methods for finding coupled patterns in climate data. J Clim 5:541–550

  14. Cane MA, Zebiak SE, Dolan SC (1986) Experimental forecasts of El Niño. Nature 321:827–832

  15. Cayan DR (1989) The influence of North Pacific atmospheric circulation on streamflow in the West. Aspects of Climate Variabilities in Pacific and the Western Americas. Geophys Monograph Am Geophys Union 55:375–398

  16. Chelliah M, Arkin P (1992) Large scale interannual variability of monthly outgoing longwave radiation anomalies over the global tropics. J Clim 5:867–875

  17. Chen WY (1982) Fluctuations in Northern Hemisphere 700 hPa height field associated with the Southern Oscillation. Mon Weather Rev 110:808–823

  18. Fischer G (1987) Climatic Simulations with the ECMWF T21-model in Hamburg. Meteorologisches Institut der Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

  19. Folland CK, Parker D (1989) Observed variations of sea surface temperature. Proc NATO Advanced Workshop on Climate Ocean Interaction, Oxford, Eng, Sept 1988, Kluwer Academic Press, Dordrecht, pp 21–52

  20. Gadgil S, Joseph PV, Joshi NV (1984) Ocean-atmosphere coupling over monsoon regions Nature 312:141–143

  21. Gadgil S, Guruprasad A, Srinivasan J (1992) Systematic bias in the NOAA outgoing long-wave radiation dataset? J Clim 5:867–875

  22. Gaffen DJ, Barnett TP, Elliott WP (1991) Space and time scales of global tropospheric moisture J Clim 4:989–1008

  23. Garcia O (1981) A comparison of two satellite rainfall estimates for GATE. J Appl Meteorol 20:430–438

  24. Garcia O (1985) Atlas of highly reflective clouds for the global tropics, 1971–1983. US Dept of Comm NOAA, Environ Research Lab, Boulder, CO

  25. Gill AE (1980) Some simple solutions for heat induced tropical circulations. Q J R Meteorol Soc 106:447–460

  26. Goldenberg SB, O'Brien JJ (1981) Time and space variability of tropical Pacific wind stress. Mon Weather Rev 109:1190–1207

  27. Graham NE (1990) Seasonal relations between tropical Pacific SSTs and Northern Hemisphere 700 hPa heights. Proc Fourteenth Annual Climate Diagnostics Meeting (1989) NOAA/NMC/CAC, pp 184–191

  28. Graham NE (1991) Decadal scale climate variability in the 1970's and 1980's: some observations and model results. Preprints Fifth Conference on Climate Variations. AMS, Boston, MA, pp 109–112

  29. Graham NE (1994) Canonical correlation analysis. World Meteorological Organisation technical note on reviews of modern climate diagnostic techniques (accepted)

  30. Graham NE, Barnett TP, Latif M (1992) Considerations of the predictability of ENSO with a low-order coupled model. TOGA Notes 7:11–15, Nova Univ Oceanographic Ctr, 8000 North Ocean Dr, Dania FL

  31. Graham NE, Barnett TP, Kirk E, Schlese U (1994) On the roles of tropical and mid-latitude SSTs in forcing interannual variability in the winter northern hemisphere circulation. J Clim (in press)

  32. Graham NE, Barnett TP (1987) Sea surface temperature, surface wind divergence and convection over tropical Oceans. Science 238:657–659

  33. Graham NE, Michaelsen J, Barnett TP (1987) An investigation of the ENSO cycle with statistical models. 1. Predictor field characteristics. J Geophys Res 92:14251–14270

  34. Graham NE, Barnett TP, Chervin RM, Schlesinger ME, Schlese U (1989) Comparisons of GCM and observed surface wind fields over the tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans. J Atmos Sci 46:760–788

  35. Griffith GC, Woodley WL, Grube PG, Martin DW, Stout J, Sikdar DN (1978) Rain estimation from geosynchronous satellite imagery-visible and infrared studies. Mon Weather Rev 106:1153–1171

  36. Horel JD, Wallace JM (1981) Planetary-scale atmospheric phenomena associated with the Southern Oscillation. Mon Weather Rev 109:813–829

  37. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (1992) Oceanic interdecadal climate variability. IOC Technical Series 40, UNESCO

  38. Kashiwabara T (1987) On the recent winter cooling in the North Pacific (in Japanese). Tenki 34:777–781

  39. Kerr RA (1992) Unmasking a shifty climate system. Science 255:1508–1510

  40. Kilonsky BJ, Ramage CS (1976) A technique for estimating tropical open-ocean rainfall from satellite observations. J Appl Meteorol 15:972--975

  41. Krueger AF, Gray TI Jr. (1969) Long-term variations in equatorial circulation and rainfall. Mon Weather Rev 97:700–711

  42. Latif M (1987) Tropical ocean circulation experiments. J Phys Oceanogr 17:246–263

  43. Latif M, Biercamp J, von Storch H, McPhaden M, Kirk E (1990) Analyses of tropical anomalies simulated by an AGCM. J Clim 3:509–521

  44. Lau KM, Chan PH (1985) Aspects of the 40–50 day oscillation during northern winter as inferred from outgoing longwave radiation. Mon Weather Rev 113:1889–1909

  45. Lau NC, Nath MJ (1994) A modeling study of the relative roles of tropical and extratropical SST anomalies in the variability of the global atmosphere-ocean system. J Clim (in press)

  46. Livezey RE, Chen WY (1983) Statistical field significance and its determination by Monte Carlo techniques. Mon Weather Rev 111:46–59

  47. Miller AJ, Barnett TP, Graham NE (1993) A comparison of some tropical ocean models: Hindcast skill and El Niño evolution. J Phys Oceanogr 23:1567–1591

  48. Miller AJ, Cayan DR, Barnett TP, Graham NE, Oberhuber JM (1994) Interdecadal variability of the Pacific Ocean: model response to observed heat flux and wind stress anomalies. Clim Dyn (in press)

  49. Morrissey ML (1986) A statistical analysis of the relationship among rainfall, outgoiing long-wave radiation and the moisture budget during January-March 1979. Mon Weather Rev 114:931–942

  50. Murakami T (1980) Empirical orthogonal function analysis of satellite observed outgoing longwave radiation during summer. Mon Weather Rev 108:205–222

  51. Nitta T, Yamada S (1989) Recent warming of tropical sea surface temperatures and its relationship to the northern hemisphere circulation. J Meteorol Soc Japan 67:375–383

  52. Prabhakara RS, Fraser GD, Man-Li CW, Curran RJ (1988) Thin cirrus clouds: seasonal distribution over oceans deduced from Nimbus-4 IRIS. J Appl Meteorol 27:379–399

  53. Reynolds RW (1982) A monthly averaged climatology of sea surface temperature. NOAA Tech Rep NWS 31

  54. Seymour RJ, Strange RR, Cayan DR, Nathan RA (1984) Influence of El Niños on California's wave climate. Proc 19th International Conference on Coastal Engineering, Sept 1984, Amer Soc Coastal Eng, Houston, TX, pp 577–592

  55. Shabbar A, Higuichi K, Knox JL (1988) Regional analysis of the secular variation of Northern Hemisphere 50-kPa heights. Proc Thirteenth Annual Climate Diagnostics Workshop, US Dept of Comm, NOAA, NWS, CAC, pp 176–183

  56. Slutz RJ, Lubker SL, Hiscox JD, Woodruff SD, Jenne RL, Joseph DH, Steurer PM, Elms JD (1985) The comprehensive ocean-atmosphere data set. Release 1. Clim Res Prog, ERL/NOAA, Boulder, CO

  57. Tatsuoka MM (1971) Multivariate analysis 183–191, John Wiley, New York

  58. Taylor RC (1973) An atlas of Pacific island rainfall, Hawaii Inst of Geophys Data Rpt No 25 (available from the Dept Meteor, Univ of Hawaii)

  59. Trenberth KE (1990) Recent observed interdecadal climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 71:998–993

  60. Trenberth KE, Paolino DA (1981) Characteristic patterns of variability of sea level pressure in the Northern Hemisphere. Mon Weather Rev 109:1169–1189

  61. Venrick EL, McGowan JA, Cayan DR, Hayward TL (1987) Climate and chlorophyll a: long-term trends in the central North Pacific Ocean. Science 238:70–72

  62. von Storch H (ed) (1988) Climate simulations with the ECMWF T21 model in Hamburg. Large Scale Atmospheric Modelling Rpt 4. Meteorologisches Institut der Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

  63. Waliser DE, Graham NE (1993) Convective cloud systems and warm pool SSTs: coupled interactions and self-regulation. J Geophys Res 98:12881–12893

  64. Waliser DE, Graham NE, Gautier C (1993) Comparison of the highly reflective cloud and outgoing longwave radiation datasets for use in estimating tropical deep convection. J Clim 6:331–353

  65. Wallace JM, Smith C, Jiang Q (1990) Spatial patterns of atmosphere-ocean interaction in the northern winter. J Clim 3:990–998

  66. Weickmann KM (1983) Intraseasonal circulation and outgoing longwave radiation modes during northern hemisphere winter. Mon Weather Rev 111:1838–1858

  67. Wyrtki K, Meyers G (1975) The trade wind field over the Pacific Ocean. II. Bimonthly fields of wind stress, 1950–1972. HIG75–2, Hawaii Inst of Geophys, Univ of Hawaii, Honolulu

  68. Zebiak SE (1986) Tropical convergence feedback in a simple model for El Niño. Mon Weather Rev 114:1263–1271

  69. Zebiak SE (1990) Diagnostic studies of Pacific surface winds. J Clim 3:1016–1031

  70. Zebiak SE, Cane MA (1987) A model El Niño-Southern oscillation. Mon Weather Rev 115:2262–2278

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to N E Graham.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Graham, N.E. Decadal-scale climate variability in the tropical and North Pacific during the 1970s and 1980s: observations and model results. Climate Dynamics 10, 135–162 (1994).

Download citation


  • General Circulation Model
  • Surface Heat Flux
  • Climate Shift
  • Surface Wind Stress
  • Winter Northern Hemisphere