The Relation between Decadal Variability of Subtropical Mode Water and the North Atlantic Oscillation* Academic Article uri icon


  • The Bermuda station ā€œSā€ time series has been used to define the variability of subtropical mode water (STMW) from 1954 to 1995. This record, which shows decadal variability at a nominal period of about 12-14 yr, has been used as a baseline for seeking correlation with large-scale atmospheric forcing and with decadal north-south excursions of the Gulf Stream position defined by the subsurface temperature at 200-m depth. A common time period of 1954-89 inclusive, defined by the data sources, shows a high degree of correlation among the STMW potential vorticity (PV), Gulf Stream position, and large-scale atmospheric forcing (buoyancy flux, SST, and sea level pressure). Two pentads with anomalously small and large STMW PV were further studied and composites were made to define a revised North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index associated with the decadal forcing. During years of low PV at Bermuda, the NAO index is low, the Gulf Stream is in a southerly position, and the zero wind stress curl latitude is shifted south as are the composite extratropical winter storm tracks, in comparison to the period of high PV at Bermuda. Because the NAO, Gulf Stream separation latitude, and STMW PV variations are in phase with maximum annually averaged correlation at zero year time lag, the authors hypothesize that all must be either coupled with one another or with some other phenomenon that determines the covariability. A mechanism is proposed that could link all of the above together. It relies on the fact that during periods of high STMW PV, associated with a northerly Gulf Stream and a high NAO, one finds enhanced production of mode water in the subpolar gyre and Labrador Sea. Export of the enhanced Labrador Sea Water (LSW) component into the North Atlantic via the Deep Western Boundary Current can influence the separation point of the Gulf Stream in the upper ocean once the signal propagates from the source region to the crossover point with the Gulf Stream. If the SST signal produced by the 100-km shift of the Gulf Stream along a substantial (1000 km) length of its path as it leaves the coast can influence the NAO. a negative feedback oscillation may develop with a timescale proportional to the time delay between the change of phase of the air-sea forcing in the Labrador Basin and the LSW transient at the crossover point. Both a simple mechanistic model as well as a three-layer numerical model are used to examine this feedback, which could produce decadal oscillations given a moderately strong coupling.

publication date

  • July 2000