The Role of Aerosols in the Evolution of Tropical North Atlantic Ocean Temperature Anomalies

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Science  08 May 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5928, pp. 778-781
DOI: 10.1126/science.1167404

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Dust in the Wind

The temperature of North Atlantic surface waters has a major effect on climate in a variety of ways, not least because its heat content helps to control hurricane formation and strength. The North Atlantic surface has warmed considerably in recent decades, a trend generally associated with global or regional air temperature increases, or with changes in ocean circulation. Evan et al. (p. 778, published online 26 March) use nearly 30 years of satellite data to examine another source of ocean temperature variability, the radiative effects of atmospheric aerosols. Low frequency changes in local tropical North Atlantic surface temperatures seem mostly to be caused by variability in mineral and stratospheric aerosol abundances. Thus, to provide more accurate projections of these temperatures, general circulation models will need to account for long-term changes in dust loadings.


Observations and models show that northern tropical Atlantic surface temperatures are sensitive to regional changes in stratospheric volcanic and tropospheric mineral aerosols. However, it is unknown whether the temporal variability of these aerosols is a key factor in the evolution of ocean temperature anomalies. We used a simple physical model, incorporating 26 years of satellite data, to estimate the temperature response of the ocean mixed layer to changes in aerosol loadings. Our results suggest that the mixed layer’s response to regional variability in aerosols accounts for 69% of the recent upward trend, and 67% of the detrended and 5-year low pass–filtered variance, in northern tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures.

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