National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2017

The role of external forcing and internal variability in regulating global mean surface temperatures on decadal timescales

Dong, L., and M.J. McPhaden

Environ. Res. Lett., 12(3), 034011, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa5dd8 (2017)

Global mean surface temperature (GMST) shows considerable decadal variations superimposed on a pronounced warming trend, with rapid warming during 1920–1945 and 1977–2000 and warming hiatuses during 1946–1976 and 2001–2013. The prevailing view is that internally generated variations associated with the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) dominate decadal variations in GMST, while external forcing from greenhouse gases and anthropogenic aerosols dominate the long-term trend in GMST over the last hundred years. Here we show evidence from observations and climate models that external forcing largely governs decadal GMST variations in the historical record with internally generated variations playing a secondary role, except during those periods of IPO extremes. In particular, the warming hiatus during 1946–1976 started from a negative IPO but was later dominated by the eruption of Mount Agung in 1963, while the subsequent accelerated warming during 1977–2000 was due primarily to increased greenhouse gas forcing. The most recent warming hiatus apparent in observations occurred largely through cooling from a negative IPO extreme that overwhelmed the warming from external forcing. An important implication of this work is that when the phase of the IPO turns positive, as it did in 2014, the combination of external forcing and internal variability should lead to accelerated global warming. This accelerated warming appears to be underway, with record high GMST in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

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