The North Atlantic Oscillation, surface current velocities, and SST changes in the subpolar North Atlantic

Flatau, MK, Talley L, Niiler PP.  2003.  The North Atlantic Oscillation, surface current velocities, and SST changes in the subpolar North Atlantic. Journal of Climate. 16:2355-2369.

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atmospheric circulation, drifters, labrador, nordic seas, ocean, patterns, recirculation, temperature, topography, variability


Changes in surface circulation in the subpolar North Atlantic are documented for the recent interannual switch in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index from positive values in the early 1990s to negative values in 1995/96. Data from Lagrangian drifters, which were deployed in the North Atlantic from 1992 to 1998, were used to compute the mean and varying surface currents. NCEP winds were used to calculate the Ekman component, allowing isolation of the geostrophic currents. The mean Ekman velocities are considerably smaller than the mean total velocities that resemble historical analyses. The northeastward flow of the North Atlantic Current is organized into three strong cores associated with topography: along the eastern boundary in Rockall Trough, in the Iceland Basin ( the subpolar front), and on the western flank of the Reykjanes Ridge (Irminger Current). The last is isolated in this Eulerian mean from the rest of the North Atlantic Current by a region of weak velocities on the east side of the Reykjanes Ridge. The drifter results during the two different NAO periods are compared with geostrophic flow changes calculated from the NASA/Pathfinder monthly gridded sea surface height (SSH) variability products and the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) SST data. During the positive NAO years the northeastward flow in the North Atlantic Current appeared stronger and the circulation in the cyclonic gyre in the Irminger Basin became more intense. This was consistent with the geostrophic velocities calculated from altimetry data and surface temperature changes from AVHRR SST data, which show that during the positive NAO years, with stronger westerlies, the subpolar front was sharper and located farther east. SST gradients intensified in the North Atlantic Current, Irminger Basin, and east of the Shetland Islands during the positive NAO phase, associated with stronger currents. SST differences between positive and negative NAO years were consistent with changes in air-sea heat flux and the eastward shift of the subpolar front. SST advection, as diagnosed from the drifters, likely acted to reduce the SST differences.