Is the Gulf Stream responsible for Europe's mild winters?

R. Seager, D. S. Battisti, J. Yin, N. Gordon, N. Naik, A. C. Clement, M. A. Cane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

211 Scopus citations

Abstract

Is the transport of heat northward by the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift, and its subsequent release into the midlatitude westerlies, the reason why Europe's winters are so much milder than those of eastern North America and other places at the same latitude? Here, it is shown that the principal cause of this temperature difference is advection by the mean winds. South-westerlies bring warm maritime air into Europe and north-westerlies bring frigid continental air into north-eastern North America. Further, analysis of the ocean surface heat budget shows that the majority of the heat released during winter from the ocean to the atmosphere is accounted for by the seasonal release of heat previously absorbed and not by ocean heat-flux convergence. Therefore, the existence of the winter temperature contrast between western Europe and eastern North America does not require a dynamical ocean. Two experiments with an atmospheric general-circulation model coupled to an ocean mixed layer confirm this conclusion. The difference in winter temperatures across the North Atlantic, and the difference between western Europe and western North America, is essentially the same in these models whether or not the movement of heat by the ocean is accounted for. In an additional experiment with no mountains, the flow across the ocean is more zonal, western Europe is cooled, the trough east of the Rockies is weakened and the cold of north-eastern North America is ameliorated. In all experiments the west coast of Europe is warmer than the west coast of North America at the same latitude whether or not ocean heat transport is accounted for. In summary the deviations from zonal symmetry of winter temperatures in the northern hemisphere are fundamentally caused by the atmospheric circulation interacting with the oceanic mixed layer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2563-2586
Number of pages24
JournalQuarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society
Volume128
Issue number586 PART B
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 2002
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • European winters

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science

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